One Hundred

Maybe it was the antique car show we drove by this past weekend, but something got me thinking: what would I be working on _100 years ago_? In other words, today I design web sites and other related web things for a living. In 1906, I doubt I’d be doing the same (and if I was I’d be insane).

One hundred years ago, radio was in it’s infancy, so there’s an obvious parallel there: a new, exciting technology that increases communication. But really what we’re doing is _creating_ stuff, and I’m not sure I’d be building radios or telegraph equipment. I’m not smart enough for that.

Typesetting? That could be closer than radio, but typesetting was far from being something _new_ in 1906. So maybe it’d be something less obvious, like a “Wheelwright” or a “Confectioner” or even a “Newsagent” — actual professional titles for the early 20th century. And don’t they sound cool?

Regardless, it’s interesting to look back and draw similarities, especially if you do the same looking _forward_. Will anyone be designing web sites in another 100 years? Will I be doing this in 10 or 20? Who knows.


  1. Kristof says:

    I’d probably be a postal-pigeon-connaisseur!
    Always liked the idea of routing traffic.
    In 20 years I’ll be old, sailing my boat in Washington DC (hence the global warming, raising sealevels .. much more sailing space)
    Aah, memories — Aah, dream. Damn — must work now.

  2. Mark says:

    I’ve totally wondered this too. There was no such thing as marketing or IT or the web; everything I’ve done since college. I did start college with the intent of pursuing a path in audio production, so perhaps something in the music/recording industry.
    Or just doing my part to pioneer and settle the West.

  3. I think I’d be designing architecture had I been around 100 years ago. It’s what I studied before becoming a web designer, though I’d have to do it without the wonder that is AutoCAD.

  4. Nick Toye says:

    I was actually thinking of writing an entry similar to this, but rather me going back in time in the old Delorian with the flux capicitor.
    Imagine trying to explain what you do for a living,
    “so you design webs?” “What the hell is a search engine?”

  5. frebro says:

    Maybe you’d be a sign painter or working in the Arts and Crafts movement?

  6. Dave Simon says:

    Job titles were so much cooler back then. Despite my love of design, I can’t stand the title “Web Designer” – maybe because it’s two words, maybe because people think I’m a programmer, but I wish we had something “cooler.”
    100 years ago I would have run a department store – my grandfather’s business. Or be a cowboy/rancher. But I live in Montana, after all.
    100 years from now, I’ll probably be dead. Seriously, if I knew what was going to be around 100 years from now, I would be able to pay off my mortgage. :D
    I don’t even know what I’m going to do next Tuesday.

  7. simon says:

    Well, I guess 100 years ago I’d have been a car designer, or would have been creating buildings :)
    Interessting thoughts …

  8. Manton Reece says:

    I’ve wondered the same thing. We are lucky to live in a time with so many options for creative folks, and fewer obstacles to building things, virtual or otherwise.
    Also, don’t forget writing. You have two published books on web design, and that’s an option in 1906 too if the process of writing is just as interesting to you as the subject matter.

  9. Ben says:

    There’s always producing radio content, not just radios, in the same way you create web stuff now, you’re not building servers.
    It was kind a of a big time for messing around with new technologies like automobiles and airplanes.
    If you lived in Salem you probably would have been involved in all sort of interestng maritime commerce stuff, which was still a big business back then.

  10. Dave Simon said: “Job titles were so much cooler back then. Despite my love of design, I can’t stand the title “Web Designer” – maybe because it’s two words, maybe because people think I’m a programmer, but I wish we had something “cooler.””
    That’s funny, because I am a programmer, but everyone (including my saintly mother) thinks I “design websites” for a living. Heck, I think even my wife might, if pressed to name my profession, say “Web Designer.”

  11. brian warren says:

    I’ve really been wondering this myself, as I am planning for jobs in the future, making a living doing freelance web design and the whole bit. I really can’t even imagine what web design will be like 5 years from now. It’s truly shocking to think about how little we know and can plan for the future.

  12. Simon Jessey says:

    What you would’ve been doing in 1906 largely depends on where you were. In Salem, you probably would’ve been working in a tannery, or something like that. If you had been in San Francisco, you probably wouldn’t have been doing much of anything.

  13. Chris Mear says:

    ‘Newsagent’ is still a common term in the UK. They’re the people who run the little shops that sell newspapers, magazines, etc.

  14. 100 years back, I would have been a farmer and a lumberjack with a wife and 22 kids. That’s pretty much it.
    Yep yep.

  15. Chris B says:

    I’ve often thought about this and can imagine myself doing something like making or repairing clocks, or maybe something in carpentry, making furniture. Like you wrote, probably something which exercised my creative impulses.

  16. Ryan says:

    That’s an interesting thought…
    I have no idea what I’d be doing, but it would have to be creative.

  17. John Allsopp says:

    I actually used to have a presentation on this, which I first did at Web Essentials 04, where I looked at examples from radio, TV and cinema in their infancy, and also at technologies like “smell – o – vision” that never quite made it as mainstream media (surprise surprise)
    I showed clips, andplayed radio clips – it was fun.
    Its also sobering – these things seem so primitive to us now, but I am sure what we are doing now will seem equally primitive to our grandkids

  18. Some good ideas so far… I hope I’d be doing something on the creative side.
    But heck, I do know the Sox would be there to cheer on. :)
    Know what? Put me down for sportswriter.

  19. Erin says:

    If women had a more prevalent role in the workplace back in 1906, I’d probably be working at a newspaper since I have an interest in journalism. Perhaps I’d also be involved in the women’s suffrage movement.

  20. mika says:

    I don’t think there was similar changes to be creative 100 years ago. Because i’m not that smart and can’t even speak english, i would be working on some factory…

  21. Michel says:

    These are interesting thoughts…
    What would I do, if 100 years ago?
    Maybe would be a musician… Or a writer… Or definetely somethin’ on the creative side:)
    I have strictly musical education (studied in a music school, then at the Conservatoire), I played violin, until one day… I saw the first FONT tag in my life, then the first CSS rule and… after that, my life changed forever:)
    …For now, in 2006, I’m simply a web designer (not even a freelancer, although occasionally I take a project or two for work in my spare time) …handcoding xhtml/css, drawing with Macromedia Fireworks…
    …and yes, sometimes wondering, what I’ll be doing in 5-10-20 years…
    …what we all would be doing then:-)
    My $ 0.02 ;-)

  22. DustPuppy says:

    “like a “Wheelwright” or a “Confectioner” or even a “Newsagent” — actual professional titles for the early 20th century. And don’t they sound cool?”
    All the above are still professional titles. Wheelwrights are no exactly common these days but the other two certainly are.

  23. I’d be building stuff, like houses and stuff.

  24. Fritsie says:

    100 years ago I would work in a bakery or some kind of shop or be an inventor of useful stuff…
    Flashing forward 100 years I’d like to be an astronaut…
    or get defrosted from cryo and find out my bankaccount has grown a few digits due to interest rates and be a friggin’ bilioniar…
    Nothing to it ;)

  25. A major competency for successful web designers is layout. Great web designers have a knack for the way things should be arranged and placed.
    Going with that theory, these are positions that would work for web designer types in 1906:
    - Landscape designer
    - Gardener
    - Museum curator
    - Silent film director
    - Systems architect (you’d design a factory)
    - Mid-level manager of engineers or other left-brained people
    - Interior designer
    - Architect
    The parallel between radio and the web is communication, so if you’re main thing is blogging, you could definitely work in radio. But if you’re less into content and more into just being a web designer, then I don’t see where you’d fit into the radio world.
    Fast-forward to the future, and most of those aforementioned positions would still be applicable. I’d maybe add the following:
    - game designer
    - metaverse designer (think Second Life)
    - software developer (it’ll all be click-and-drag by then)

  26. This is all good fun, and I hate to be a rain-er of parades, but the fact is there was a significantly smaller middle class 100 years ago. So unless your great grandparents were rather well off, you probably would have been a farmer, factory worker or similar working-class job.
    I know I can’t be the only web designer to come from a working-class immigrant family. Two of my grandparents were workers in one of Thomas Edison’s factories (that’s where they met), and one of my grandmothers was a house servant for the Bristol family (of the later Bristol Meyers Squib fame) in New York state.
    Most Americans 100 years ago would not have had the luxury to choose their profession and work in such illustrious industries such as radio or publishing, nor would they have the money to go to college at all let alone be an artist, musician or writer. Certainly some families did, but it was much fewer than today, and there wasn’t as much class-mobility back then.
    Okay, now back to our regular schedule fantasies.

  27. Woops… when I said grandparents in the previous post, I meant great-grandparents.

  28. Nungesser says:

    I think it’s interesting that my grandfather owned and ran radio stations; I can see parallels between what he did and what I do now as a web designer.
    100 years ago, however, I’d probably be following in the footsteps of my great-grandfather, and working in a dry-cleaning shop.

  29. DaDawg says:

    I have no clue what I’d be doing. Probably sitting around and bitching about not having air conditioning.
    I would put trademarks on “Microsoft”, “Google”, “Yahoo”, “Linux” and “Photoshop”.

  30. I can’t stand the title “Web Designer” – maybe because it’s two words…

    Would you prefer the term “webwright”?

  31. Phillip Winn says:

    Most of us would be working in factories and shops, working really hard to get by. Life is much, much easier now for the common man, and we have luxuries like time to spend pondering these things. :-)

  32. There most certainly was marketing back a hundred years ago; for an interesting story about how it evolved, read For God, Country, and Coca-Cola by Mark Pendergrast.
    I figure given where my parents came from, and what their parents did, a hundred years ago I might have been a mechanic or a lumberjack, or maybe a schoolteacher. Who knows? Fifteen years ago I was planning on being an elbow-patched, pipe-smoking religious studies professor focusing on Asian religious traditions. I only got the job that led to my working with Unix and perl and the Web because I got laid off from two jobs in one day (t-shirt screenprinter and standardized test essay scorer); at one point, after the stints in pizza delivery, Ford assembly plant work, Pepsi bottling plant line worker, etc. etc. ad infinitum, I seriously considered selling bulk frozen meat door to door. I had bills to pay. You do what you can do, you do what you must do. And in eastern Maine in 1906, it probably would have involved either cutting down trees or fixing lumber industry machinery.
    Or, maybe more in line with my current interests, I’d have been a bartender :)

  33. Kaleberg says:

    I think radio was all Morse code back in 1906. Voice and music didn’t come in until after the Great War. On the other hand, movies, printing, and photography offered artistic and technological opportunities.
    People paid good money to see movie shorts, a la YouTube, at nickleodeons or projected on a silver screen. Magazines and tabloids took advantage of new printing technologies to produce new forms of publications, posters and possibilities for advertising. Urbanization helped drive the creation of the first ad agencies, and while that business is still much derided, it did offer creative opportunities. Photography was also taking off with smaller cameras and flash equipment, which led to a more realistic school of photography.
    There was definitely new media back in 1906, and a lot of artistic and creative opportunity. As for myself, I would have been hacking phone exchanges and automatic elevators, building amazing things out of relays.

  34. Elaine says:

    My great-grandmothers were all havin’ babies & tending house 100 years ago, except for the one oddity who got divorced, thought she was gonna die of some unknown illness, lit out for California and got all into Christian Science. One of the homemaker g-gmothers died in childbirth, too, in the late teens, so there’s a comforting thought.
    One of my great-grandfathers was a minister, one did something with the railroads, one was a plumber, and the other was mostly just a drunk.
    I don’t think it’s inconceivable that I would’ve been a schoolteacher, quite possibly as a nun. Several of my great-aunts were nuns. (Go NYC Irish!)
    “Would you prefer the term “webwright”?”
    So much would I prefer that term, but I guess it’s a little late for that. :(

  35. Paul Watson says:

    Elaine makes a good point. At least us blokes had some options.
    A 100 years ago I’d have been in the port city of Durban in South Africa working in a newspaper or fiddling with that new fangled photography stuff. Possibly having been in the field covering the second Boer War.

  36. I’d have been a teacher, photographer or a journalist.

  37. Bill Connell says:

    100 years ago i would have been building bicycles. They were hugely popular, and the subject of great innovation – it’s where the Wright brothers started, after all.
    Plus, it’s what i’d be doing today if i weren’t a parent with responsibilities and debt to pay. I wonder if the adjusted wage for a bike shop owner was any better at the turn of the century than it is today…

  38. Scott says:

    Antique car show? Were you near stowe, VT this past weekend by any chance?
    100 years ago I’d probably be an apothecary, because I would have looked into the future and realized that in 100 years it would be cool and old-timey sounding.
    100 Years in the future I’ll be designing web sites based on standards as they were in 2006 (regardless of whether or not the web still exists as it is today :)
    PS – My apologies if this comes through as a repeat comment.

  39. zro says:

    Typesetting is quite the art form.
    Maybe we can still be doing that in 100 years?

  40. “Antique car show? Were you near stowe, VT this past weekend by any chance?”
    I sure was. :-D

  41. Alan Wyatt says:

    My great grandfather was a mosaicist (Maurice Josey) and his father before him a reproductive engraver (Richard Josey) in mezzotint (who engraved Whistler’s Mother).
    I try and imagine similarities in working with fine detail; the small bits that make the big picture.
    The engraver may have spent 3 months on a project, the mosaicist spent 12 years on one. Their work can still be seen today. How long is a web site likely to be around for? Domain names last for as long as they are paid for.

  42. I don’t even have to think about it, I know exactly what I would have been…
    A Vaudeville Performer.
    I was born to entertain people in a cheesy way!

  43. Kim Mihaly says:

    Webwright – no!
    I recall reading in a biography of the great WS Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) that when he was offered a knighthood for services as a playwright he was most insulted, as a ‘wright’ constructs or repairs things & has strong connotations of being a menial activity. The german translation is handwerker (some one who works with his hands) – interesting though playwright is the only exception eg there are no musicwrights, paintwrights etc . ( I wish I could lay my hands on the quotation)
    I don’t know about you but a web design/programming is very little ‘hand working’
    100 years ago – I would probably have had a commision in the Imperial Austrian Army or have been sitting in the Hungarian Parliament as my grandfather & great uncles were (had they been british they would have described themselves as ‘gentlemen’ – living off investments)

  44. Ian Atkinson says:

    The closest you can get to actually answering this is to start digging about in your family tree! I work in IT doing network management and Apple infrastructure support, but 100 years ago most of my male ancestors were ironstone miners, so I guess I’d have been down a pit! is your friend :)

  45. Mike Stone says:

    As far as radio is concerned Kaleberg is almost correct. The concensus seems to be that the first radio broadcast of a voice over a meaningful distance was made by Reginald Fessenden on December 24th, 1906. So, if you were to be working in radio 100 years ago, you would have been one of his assistants or working with Lee de Forest or, in the UK, Marconi. This is more akin to being an assistant to Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in 1989 than a web designer today.
    As Kaleberg said, radio did not become a mass communication tool until after the 1914-1918 war.

  46. Paladin says:

    Working for “da man”… just like now.

  47. Jim says:

    You should read a book called (If you havn’t allready…)

  • One of the homemaker g-gmothers died in childbirth, too, in the late teens, so there’s a comforting thought.

  • ACJ says:

    I’d probably be making drawings that could have both artistic as scientific value. At least, that’s what kept me busy untill I discovered computers.

  • Rick Curran says:

    Somebody’s comment above made me think, what web designers be doing in 5 years? Will we be obsolete? Could be a good point of discussion Dan.
    I was just suckered into buying another Simplebits T-shirt, darn your colour-changing marketing methods mr Cederholm! ;)

  • I’d be a gunslinger.

  • Rocketeer says:

    I’d definitely be a “Signboard Painter” or the guy that made the stencils for the Painter or the “Paint Mixer”!

  • Sandy says:

    I’m doing a study to find out what web designers think of backend/coding developers.
    Would anyone be interested in participating in the study?
    It’s all explained in my blog if you have a moment.
    Blog URL =

  • Birgit says:

    on Comment #19:
    The first thing I was thinking when reading this:
    Well, probably not much else than the usual things a woman could do 100 years ago…cooking, watching the babies, caring for her husband…
    If I had been a guy then, I’d probably have been a cowboy :)