A Brief History of Trash, Or Why We Might be Living in the Golden Age of Garbage

A Brief History of Trash, Or Why We Might be Living in the Golden Age of Garbage

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Nancy Mitchell
Jan 11, 2017
Artist Barry Rosenthal makes art out of garbage. You can see more of his work at Slate.
(Image credit: Barry Rosenthal)

How many things did you throw away today? If you're like most Americans, chances are good that you will find it impossible to answer this question, because throwing things away is so ingrained in our daily life that we don't even think about it. But garbage disposal, like many of the modern conveniences we take for granted, has a long and rich history.

Of course, garbage dumps have been unearthed in ancient cities, but it's safe to say that, before the Industrial Revolution, garbage as we know it now simply didn't exist. The idea of making a package or container that was designed for one-time use was preposterously wasteful, and almost everything, from food scraps to little bits of fabric, was re-used. In her book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, author Susan Strasser describes in fascinating detail the ways in which housewives of old would find a use for pretty much anything, from feeding kitchen scraps to pigs to making rugs from fabric remnants.

Things that couldn't be re-used could be sold to peddlers, who maintained a kind of barter economy by accepting things like fabric scraps, old copper and iron pieces, and even bones in exchange for new housewares. These household byproducts actually provided an important stream of resources to factories in early America. Paper mills, for example, depended on cotton scraps, which were pounded into a pulp and used to make paper.

For country households, anything that was somehow left over after all this economy could be either buried or burned. In the city, well-to-do folks paid carters to take away their rubbish, while people in poorer neighborhoods simply threw their trash out onto the street. (I imagine the smell was horrific.) It wasn't uncommon, even in big cities like New York or Philadelphia, to see pigs wandering the street, feasting on the refuse. Rag-pickers and other similarly enterprising folks could make a living by collecting resalable items from other people's trash.

It wasn't until the late 19th century that the idea of municipal trash collection began to pick up steam. At this point, the Industrial Revolution (and America's increasing wealth as a country) had made consumer goods cheaper and more plentiful, and things like soap and flour that people used to buy in bulk were starting to come in individual packages. Especially in big cities, garbage was starting to be a serious problem. Streets were clogged not just with household discards, but also with newspapers, horse manure, and even the carcasses of dead horses.

Two New York City streets are pictured before and after garbage collection was instituted, in 1895. The difference is dramatic. (This is from Collectors Weekly's fascinating history of garbage pickup in NYC.)
(Image credit: Collectors Weekly)

The great reform movements of the late 19th century made establishing municipal garbage collection one of their goals, alongside clean water and sanitary sewers, seeing garbage not just as an eyesore but as a public health nuisance. New York City instituted public-sector garbage management in 1895, and other American cities were quick to follow suit.

These days our streets are no longer covered in filth, but we throw away a truly unprecedented volume of trash: according to one estimate the average American produces 7.1 pounds of garbage per day. As we look to the future of trash and contemplate its effect on our planet, it's useful to look back in the history of trash, to a time when waste was not so ingrained into daily life. With modern emphases on things like recycling and composting, we've hopefully started to move the needle back in the other direction. Perhaps someday historians will look back on our era as one of incredible but short-lived wastefulness—the golden age of trash.

Want to learn more? Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash is the most fascinating book I have ever read about garbage.

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