Waste and Want: A Social History of Trashby Susan Strasser
An unprecedented history of that most commonplace act of everyday life--throwing things away--and how it has transformed American society. 7 photos.
“Strasser retrieves what history discards: the taken-for-granted minutiae of the everyday life of ordinary people.” Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Read an Excerpt
When a Virginia plantation called Flowerdew Hundred was excavated during the 1970s, a volunteer archaeologist noticed that the newly unearthed fragments of a stoneware bottle neck, buried since the 1620s, matched perfectly with the bottom of a large German jug in the plantation's museum, though the two had been dug from different sites. One wit suggested that the bottle had exploded in midair, its halves falling far from each other. Archaeologist James Deetz offers a more likely explanation: the early colonists simply did not have many things. For some time after the bottle broke in two, he hypothesizes, its bottom served as a bowl, while the top was used as a funnel. Even the more affluent Europeans used what we would now consider badly damaged pottery, Deetz writes; he points to seventeenth-century Dutch paintings that depict broken plates and bowls sitting on shelves along with intact ones.
During the nearly four hundred years since the "bowl" and "funnel" were discarded, the United States has overcome what Deetz calls its colonial "scarcity of items." Most people had little by today's standards until well into the twentieth century, but industrial production, economic growth, and the passage of time multiplied the nation's stock of utensils, serving pieces, and other household equipment. As more Americans worked for money wages and more factories produced more goods, people bought funnels and bowls instead of improvising with broken crockery.
The broken stoneware offers an image for "making do"in extremis. Except for people on the farthest reaches of the frontier, most Americans, for most of American history, have disposed of objects more casually than the residents of Flowerdew Hundred. Rich folks could always discard more than the poor; country people always depended on what they had at hand and on their own ingenuity more than those who lived near stores and markets. But the profligacy represented by home garbage disposers and throwaway cameras is new. Throughout most of our history, people of all classes and in all places have practiced an everyday regard for objects, the labor involved in creating them, and the materials from which they were made. Even as nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Americans eagerly adapted to a consumer culture, they mended, reused, saved, and made do. They darned socks and fed food scraps to chickens and pigs. They dyed faded dresses and repaired rickety furniture. They handed things down to younger and poorer relatives or to servants; they turned old clothes and sewing scraps into rugs, quilts, and other home furnishings.
Everyone was a bricoleur in the preindustrial household of the American colonies and, later, on the frontier; saving and reusing scraps was a matter of course. Cloth, wood, and food could only be obtained by arduous spinning, weaving, chopping, sawing, digging, and hoeing, by bartering with other products of strenuous work, or by spending scarce cash. Whether things were purchased at stores or crafted on farms and plantations, the value of the time, labor, and money expended on materials and their potential value as useful scraps were evident to the people who worked with them. With the coming of the industrial revolution, the work of men and single women shifted to factories; most married women, however, continued to labor in the household, supervising themselves in routines that began when they woke up and ended when they went to sleep. Responsible for food, clothing, and household furnishings, they managed their household stores as bricoleurs, accumulating leftovers and castoffs to use in their work.
Without trash collectors or much cash for purchases, most nineteenth-century American women had to make do with whatever was at hand instead of solving problems with products. "Keep a bag for odd pieces of tape and strings," instructed Lydia Maria Child in The American Frugal Housewife, first published in 1829, "they will come in use. Keep a bag or box for old buttons, so that you may know where to go when you want one." Books of advice for farm women and urban housekeepers were full of ideas for using stored materials. Coal ashes could be mixed with well-rotted manure and used as fertilizer, scattered on slippery ice, or made into garden walks. ("If well laid down, no weeds or grass will grow, and by use they become as solid and more durable than bricks.") Corncobs could be dipped in tar and resin and dried for kindling; corn husks could be used as mattress fill. Soapsuds and ashes "are good manure for bushes and young plants." Used tea leaves would "brighten the looks of a carpet, and prevent dust. They should be scattered, and then rubbed about with a broom, and then swept off." They worked on hard floors, too: "Tea leaves are good to throw under a bed to collect the light flue which is apt to fly about, when sweeping." (Later in the century, when, after decades of scarcity, wastepaper began to pile up, Good Housekeeping suggested using dampened scraps of paper for the same purpose.)
Reuse was easier in the country. Organic waste could be returned to nature; whether food scraps were dug into the ground or fed to animals, they would play their part in sustaining the family one way or the other. Country people had more room to accumulate waste products in sheds, attics, and basements or to simply leave them where they were until somebody found a use for them. One domestic writer noted that country housekeepers "are able to avoid waste in keeping things far better than city housekeepers can do. There is usually the spring-house with its running water; and with the freer air and the shade trees, closets and store-rooms can be kept cool and sweet."
As the United States became an urban nation, country ways became old-fashioned ways. In the growing cities, with fewer animals to feed and less storage space, reuse became a problem. People with money paid cartmen to remove refuse from their property, while the poor threw it in the streets. After the Civil War, many household writers lashed out at American extravagance. Compared with the frugal people of Europe, who made soup from leftovers and conserved fuel, Americans were said to waste their vast resources. "We know nothing of the saving and careful economy of people of .the Old World's thronged States," wrote Mrs. Julia McNair Wright in The Complete Home: An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Life and Affairs, a household manual explicitly addressed to the problems of maintaining genteel standards of living during the depression of the 1870s. "Lavish abundance of common things surrounded our ancestors, and they used it lavishly: we inherited the prodigal habit: but now our cities and some of our districts have a crowded population, and want is the result of waste." War, despotism, and centuries of urban life (as opposed to decades in the newer American cities) had taught foreigners economy. In other countries, Mrs. Wright went on, "the shops expect to sell in littles: a penny's worth of this, and two-pence worth of that. Exactly what is needed for use is bought, and there is nothing to be wasted. So many people live in `flats' or in lodgings, and have little or no cellar and closet-room, that they must buy as they use."
Some writers claimed that waste resulted from ignorance rather than extravagance. Christine Terhune Herrick, daughter of the widely read domestic-advice writer Marion Harland, expressed typical concerns in her first published article, "The Wastes of the Household: Watching and Saving the `Left-Overs,' "which appeared in the inaugural issue of Good Housekeeping in 1885. Acknowledging "the well known saying that a French family could live with elegance on what an American housewife throws away," Herrick maintained that "it is also true that, in eight cases out of ten, this relegation of cold bits to the offal pail or ash barrel is not caused so much by extravagance as by the lack of knowledge of how to dispose of them in any other way."
Such ignorance constituted the raison d'être of advice writers like Herrick, who dispensed thousands of suggestions for using up odds and ends and for most other problems of domestic life. No nineteenth-century housekeeper followed all or even most of the prescriptions to be found in advice books, any more than contemporary ones do everything prescribed in "Hints from Heloise" or Martha Stewart Living. Advice writing is a kind of reform literature, often more intent on correcting the behavioral norm than describing it. But some practices are mentioned so often in so many advice books that we may regard them as commonplace. Numerous mid-nineteenth-century manuals, for example, recommended lengthening the lives of thinning sheets by tearing them down the middle and sewing the outer edges together; "a double sheet can be made to double its existence," wrote Mrs. Wright in 1879, echoing advice given in print at least as early as Catharine Beecher's 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy. "This is technically termed `turning' sheets," Christine Terhune Herrick explained in her 1888 Housekeeping Made Easy, "and was more prevalent years ago than it is now." In fact, women continued to turn old sheets through the Great Depression and World War II in the United States, and even later in Europe.
Like instructions for turning sheets, recipes and techniques for mending glassware and crockery appear in virtually every household manual. Catharine Beecher suggested in 1841 that broken earthenware and china be mended "by tying it up, and boiling in milk"; an 1884 manual reaffirmed the value of this method as "a very quick way of mending." "A glutinous property, doubtless caseine," the author explained, "penetrates the fracture and congeals with a firmness very tenacious." Beecher also offered recipes for cements, one (for crockery) made with white lead, glue, and egg white and another (for mending broken iron) with potter's clay, steel filings, and linseed oil; both may be found as well in other books. Crockery might also be fixed with lime or plaster of Paris mixed with glue or egg white, and glass could be repaired with a concoction of alcohol (Mrs. Child recommended gin) and isinglass (a kind of gelatine). "If the dishes do not look well enough to come to the table, they will yet do to set away things in the store-closet, or for keeping jelly, marmalade, or preserves," Mrs. Wright advised. An aquarium might be patched with a piece of glass, shellac, and turpentine. Marble could be repaired with a mixture of alum, plaster of Paris, and water; this cement could be colored, and when set, it could be polished. One book recommended mending glass with garlic juice ("stand the article upon a plate, or other level surface, and let it remain undisturbed for a fortnight"); another manual recommended garlic for china, as a "good cement [that], leaves no mark where it has been used."
Many repair techniques were lessons in practical chemistry, requiring storerooms and sheds equipped with toxic and volatile materials: turpentine, white lead, sulfuric acid for bleaching ivory knife handles or removing fruit stains from white cloth, mercury for refinishing mirrors. "Benzole is often employed for removing grease-spots," explained the Scientific American book of household hints, on a page with "BOOTS, WATERPROOFING" and "BOTTLES, Sealing." "It is highly volatile and inflammable, so that the contents of a 4-oz. phial, if overturned, will render the air of a moderate-sized room highly explosive." Accordingly, manuals also included lists of antidotes, and instructions for rinsing out eyes, inducing vomiting, and dealing with fires. Some of the toxics, and other less dangerous chemicals for household use, were homemade from waste materials. Lye, pearl ash, and potash were all formulated from ashes, while ammonia was produced from urine, collected daily in chamber pots and sometimes used for cleaning without any aging or processing.
The sense of stewardship with regard to objects may be seen not only in diligence about repair but also in the many processes that were recommended to protect new possessions and prolong their useful lives. Combs made from tortoiseshell or horn would last longer if they were rubbed with oil from time to time. Wooden tubs and pails would shrink less if first saturated with glycerine. A handful of hay boiled in new kettles would remove the iron taste; hay water could also sweeten tin and woodenware. New iron was seasoned by gradually heating it. Many manuals suggested seasoning glass and china as well, usually by placing them in cold water, bringing it to a boil, and cooling slowly. Mrs. Child and Catharine Beecher both advised bran water for seasoning new earthenware. Another book recommended salt. With or without additives in the water, the heating and cooling was said to toughen breakable materials against sudden changes in temperature. The process worked wonders for lamp chimneys, one writer claimed: "You can never break that chimney unless you throw a flat-iron at it."
Spending time to prolong the useful lives of objects and to use up scraps was, of course, a way to save money. Household saving, the regulation of the only money that women had any control over, thereby became their special province. Thrift became ever more important as more people depended on factory wages and factory-made goods. It was essential for families with little cash; even for those in somewhat better circumstances, saving was a way for women to affect household budgets. Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife went through seven editions in its first three years, suggesting that there was a market for a book whose title promised such advice. As Herrick pointed out in Good Housekeeping half a century later, most women's time had little market value. "With the average American housekeeper," she wrote, "it is far easier to save a dollar than to earn one." But thrift was not one of the central virtues of ideal middle-class womanhood, nor in itself a primary focus of most household writing, which was generally more intent on promoting other qualities of domesticity. Like system and neatness, wrote Catharine Beecher, thrift was only valuable insofar as it tended "to promote the comfort and well-being of those affected." Her 1841 chapter "On Economy of Time and Expenses" offered mostly practical advice for budgeting and spending; what little philosophy about the virtues of thrift it contained was largely edited out of the 1869 version she wrote with her sister Harriet.
Indeed, much of what now seems like thrift in nineteenth-century housekeeping is better understood not as a conscious virtue or as self-denial but as a way of life. The bricoleur saves scraps not in order to get to heaven but because they may be useful. Even more surprising, some of what appears motivated by economy actually signified attempts at upward mobility, entry into the consumer lifestyle, and endeavors to keep up with fashion. Historian Katherine C. Grief, who has studied nineteenth-century parlors, has found much evidence of furniture made from packing crates and barrels, padded and covered with old quilts and other reused fabrics. Made and used by people who could not afford commercially made upholstery, these chairs and sofas are best understood, Grier suggests, not as emblems of thrift but as signals of "aspirations toward increased bodily comfort and the creation of self-consciously decorated rooms." Similarly, women of all classes took apart and remade old clothes in order to keep up with changing styles.
Using Food Waste
The history of food preparation follows general trends in the history of housework: from home to factory, from production to consumption, from handcraft to purchasing. The history of food waste conforms to those trends: with canned and frozen vegetables, pea pods and corn husks have become industrial wastes, while metal cans, cardboard boxes, and plastic pouches fill trash cans at the curb. Kitchen garbage and table scraps, reused in the more productive household of the nineteenth century, are discarded with the packaging or ground up and washed down the drain.
But food and food waste also stand apart from other kinds of household production and household trash. Food puts cultural questions in relief; people from different cultures regard different foods and parts of food as edible, and throw different parts away. Food and food waste attain and lose value both as other products doin the economic framework of production and consumptionand from the natural cycles of growth and decay. Food has not generally been subject to technological or style obsolescence, though most food loses value with age. And food garbage smells, raising disposal and storage questions different from those generated by other trash.
Early-nineteenth-century housewives typically stored food scraps in stop pails and grease pots. On the farm, leftovers and food scraps were useful byproducts of human cooking and eating, food for domestic animals or raw materials for making soap and candlesnot waste at all. Farm animals grazed very close to houses, eating the scraps and bones that occupants threw out of windows and doors. (Even in the twentieth century, Willa Cather used the image of "gaunt, molting turkeys picking up refuse about the kitchen door" to depict the terrible isolation of Nebraska farm life.) Cows and hogs grazed near houses less often than poultry, but many farmers kept a swill barrel near the kitchen door, a fifty- or sixty-gallon hogshead for accumulating kitchen refuse and the sour milk left over from skimming cream. When full, it was removed to feed the hogs. Smelly and swarming with flies, it would be unattractive even to the most dedicated late-twentieth-century composter. But people were accustomed to the odors of chamber pots and outdoor privies and to the stench of manure on city streets as well as in the country. Even the most refined could scarcely have been squeamish about malodorous garbage.
Urban dwellers' food scraps, too, were eaten by livestock. European travelers commented on the animals roaming the streets of American cities, eating from the gutter where unwanted food had landed, thrown from doors and windows. Scavenger pigs, goats, and stray dogs had the run of the cities before the Civil War, along with the many cows and pigs whose owners let them loose to graze on the streets. Every city passed measures to control them. An 1819 ordinance in Washington authorized police and residents to kill "any animal of goat kind." New York dispatched carts to round up pigs in 1830, but to little effect. "Take care of the pigs," Charles Dickens advised Manhattan pedestrians in American Notes, published in 1842; that year the New York Daily Tribune estimated ten thousand hogs on the streets. The roaming pigs consumed so much garbage and furnished so much food for the poor that efforts to ban them ran into political opposition.
Urban kitchen garbage continued to provide food for animals late in the century. Scavenger pigs were less common in American cities by the 1870s, but small pigsties were still permitted and New York tenement dwellers continued to keep pigs in their basements and even their rooms. In smaller cities such as Memphis, hogs and cattle were not driven from public roads until the late 1880s. Even where scavenger animals were banned, swill children toured late-nineteenth-century urban neighborhoods, gathering kitchen refuse to sell to farmers for fertilizer or hog food. Working-class families in factory towns like Homestead, Pennsylvania, and Manchester, New Hampshire, continued to feed kitchen wastes to chickens well into the twentieth century.
Most households maintained a receptacle for cooking grease, which was reused in cooking or made into candles and soap, either at home or, as time went on, by commercial establishments that themselves purchased surplus fat from households. Tallow candles were commonly made from mutton or beef suets, both harder than pork fat; the animal fat was often supplemented with beeswax or bayberry wax and solidified with chemicals such as camphor, alum, and saltpeter. Candlemaking was done after butchering, usually by dipping wicks hanging from poles into huge vats of hot fat. Molds made more uniform candles, but the process required more skill, and, in any case, no household had enough molds for a year's supply of candles. Molds were therefore used only for small amounts of fat, shared with neighbors at cooperative candle dippings or supplied by itinerant candlemakers who went from house to house, helping with the task.
Tallow candles burned quickly and unsteadily, and they scattered grease. Those who could afford it burned whale oil for lighting in the decades preceding the introduction of kerosene made from Pennsylvania petroleum, discovered in 1859. But oil lamps were far from universal. Catharine Beecher provided instructions for making both dipped and molded candles as late as 1841. She suggested that "in places where pork abounds," lard could be used in large lamps, as "a less expensive and more agreeable material than oil." Revising her book twenty-eight years later, Beecher commented that kerosene had superseded sperm oil, lard, and tallow, but even so, she retained the candlemaking instructions.
Even those who bought candles or burned oil did not throw grease away. Many used spare fat in making soap, combining grease with lye, which was produced by dripping water through another waste product, wood ashes. In 1841, Beecher proposed that all unused drippings and fat be saved for making soft laundry soap, one of three soaps for which she offered recipes. "Some persons keep a barrel, or half barrel, for soap-grease," she wrote. Making lye and soap were both tricky processes: lye required good ashes, while soap entailed the correct proportions of lye and grease. It was difficult to judge freshly made soap, another writer warned: it "sometimes appears to be good when put up, but changes entirely after standing a few days."
In the cities, tallow chandlers bought fat from butchers and private households, to make both soap and candles. Lydia Maria Child recommended that her urban readers trade their ashes and grease with the chandlers in exchange for soap, "but in the country, I am certain, it is good economy to make one's own soap." In any case, as more city dwellers heated with coal instead of wood, they lost a critical ingredient, as lye could not be made from coal ashes. Like most other industries, commercial soapmaking remained essentially a small, local enterprise before the Civil War; in 1857, the United States had a remarkable number of soapmaking establishmentsmore than six hundred, each with an average of five employees. Cincinnati alone had twenty-five.
In her 1869 manual, Beecher expected her readers to buy their soap and edited out the directions for making it. "Formerly, in New-England, soap and candles were to be made in each separate family; now, comparatively few take this toil upon them," she explained as an example of the merits of industrialization, recommending that Americans also let others bake their bread and do their laundry. Like so many other industries, soapmaking expanded and centralized after the war. Commercial soap production doubled between 1870 and 1890, with fewer companies. The biggest manufacturersColgate, Procter & Gamble, and Enoch Morgan's Sons, makers of the popular scouring soap Sapoliodeveloped into national giants. Mass production in their factories required immense amounts of fat, which they bought not from households or peddlers but from other large and expanding companies, the giant meatpackers and the producers of cottonseed oil.
Household writers continued to suggest that soap be made at home throughout the nineteenth century, because ashes and grease were free, while soap cost money. Writing during the depression of the 1870s, Mrs. Wright even proposed soapmaking to the middle and upper classes, as an economy for hard times. "All that rough fat should be saved in a place secure from rats," she wrote, and the servant "should each month make up a little keg of soft-soap for scrubbing and dish-washing." This would preserve the more expensive commercial bar soap, so often left to dissolve in the wash bucket. As late as 1890, a prominent sanitary engineer claimed that "good and thrifty" country housewives still saved grease, some to make soap themselves, others to sell to peddlers along with rags, bones, and other refuse. But while many households continued to save grease for cooking until after World War II, only the poorest and most frugal made all their soap.
The best food scraps never saw the inside of the grease pot or the slop pail. Household manuals recommended serving them. As part of cleaning up after dinner, Lydia Maria Child advised, "all the good bits of vegetables and meat" should be collected and minced, "that they may be in readiness to make a little savoury mince meat for supper or breakfast." Catharine Beecher likewise recommended considering future use for scraps while clearing the table. "Put all the food remaining on the dishes, and which is good, on plates," she wrote in her 1841 Treatise, "and set it away for use. Scrape the grease into the soap-grease pot, and the scraps into the slop-pail; and put the tea leaves into a bowl for use. Save all bits of butter." (Household manuals gave instructions for purifying rancid butter, by rinsing it in boiling water, new milk, or a lime solution.) In her 1869 revision, Beecher was only slightly more refined about reusing what was left on the plates. "Scrape the dishes," she now wrote, "putting away any food which may remain on them, and which it may be proper to save for future use." Even though she now expected her readers to be purchasing soap, she still required them to save their grease and put scraps into the slop pail.
Various utensils and devices facilitated the storage of leftovers, some commercially available and others homemade. Mosquito netting, wire covers, and perforated tin boxes offered some protection from bugs and rodents in pantries and cellars. But food still spoiled. Child explained what to do "if you have fear that poultry may become musty before you want to cook it" (stuff it with a peeled onion and some pepper and hang it in a dry, cool place) or if it was "injured before you are aware of it" (wash it thoroughly, cook it with pepper, and hang it up with a muslin bag of charcoal inside). Similarly, "loaf cake slightly injured by time" could be resurrected by cutting the mold off, wetting the cake with brandy and sugar water, and warming it in the oven. Tainted butter could be melted and purified with toast; rancid lard could be sweetened with potatoes. Child's biographer, who explains that The American Frugal Housewife came out of the author's own experience of poverty, reports that Child actually did all these things. "Even in old age, she would complain of spending an inordinate amount of energy battling mold, fermentation, and spoilage."
Iceboxescalled refrigerators even before they were cooled by electricity and gasbecame a realistic possibility after 1827, with technological innovations in the cutting and storage of natural ice, harvested from ponds and stored in icehouses. Beecher recommended commercially made refrigerators but described a homemade one fashioned from barrels in the 1840s, and ice carts made regular deliveries in cities by the 1850s. Ice was expensive, however, and remained a luxury for most people until the end of the century. In 1879, Julia McNair Wright discussed a wide range of practices for storing leftovers: using commercially made refrigerators, fashioning homemade substitutes from packing boxes insulated with sawdust (set on stovepipe legs "if your cellar has rats in it"), and forgoing ice entirely by putting food in earthenware basins covered with netting.
Although refrigerators solved some problems, they created others. Iceboxes might be worse than going without ice, remarks one of the characters in Mrs. Wright's partly fictionalized Complete Home, because some people "crowded all manner of things into them, and were not careful to cleanse them thoroughly of all bits of food that might be scattered from the dishes." Christine Terhune Herrick described a problem that sounds familiar more than a century later. Into the refrigerator, she wrote, "are too often thrust odds and ends and scraps that are suffered to remain there long enough to become malodorous, and thus taint other food." Herrick told the story of a mistress returning to her refrigerator after a two-week illness, during which she had left kitchen affairs in the hands of the cook. A "nauseating" smell emanated from "a plate of refuse fish.... A couple of chops on another dish were white with mould, while a handful of vegetables rotted in the corner. And in the midst of all stood a plate of butter-balls and a pitcher containing the baby's supply of milk."
Domestic writers suggested that leftovers be used quickly in new dishes such as hashes, mincemeats, bread puddings, meat pies, fish salads, cheese fondue, or Welsh rarebit. Industrious cooks might also render leftover fat for use in cooking or to soothe chapped hands, and turn bones and vegetable peelings into soup stocks. Beecher and Stowe advised emulating the French pot-au-leu, keeping a stock kettle constantly on the stove. Then as now, such enterprise depended on the skill and energy of the cook, whether she was a housewife or a servant.
So did the quality of the remade dish. Beecher and Stowe contrasted "cunningly devised minces" made from leftovers by "the true domestic artist" with "those things called hashes ... compounds of meat, gristle, skin, fat, and burnt fibre, with a handful of pepper and salt flung at them, dredged with lumpy flour, watered from the spout of the teakettle, and left to simmer at the cook's convenience while she is otherwise occupied." As for such unsavory concoctions, "Let us not dwell too closely on their memory," they wrote, using the occasion to campaign for domestic training in cooking.
Unfortunately, cookbook writers had trouble describing exactly how to achieve a cunning mince instead of a forgettable hash. Cooking with leftovers was bricolagea dialogue between the cook and the available materialsand without knowing exactly what was on hand, no writer could provide accurate directions. Mrs. Wright, who offered a recipe for mock macaroni made from broken crackers and even supplied directions for making jelly sandwiches from leftover bread, suggested that decoration might help. Garnishing such dishes as cold sliced meat or mashed codfish and potatoes with parsley or celery leaves, hard-cooked eggs, or lemon slices would make them more appetizing. "You can afford to economize," she advised, "if you can make your cooked-over dishes look handsomer than most people's first-hand dishes."
Objections to leftovers were legion, a topic for jokes and the source of domestic insecurities. The Family Save-All: A System of Secondary Cookery, a British book reprinted in the United States in 1869, alternated witticisms and short tales with recipes that included pea-shell pottage and stewed artichoke stems. The quintessential leftover joke appeared on the first page. "Oh! Mary!" the Master of the House asks the maid, in a little dialogue printed below recipes for puddings made from cold meat. "What is there for dinner to-day?" "I think, sir, it's cold meat, sir," answers Mary. "Hm! tell your mistress, Mary, when she comes in, that I may possibly be detained in the City on business, and she is on no account to wait dinner for me."
Friends and neighbors, too, might be put off. Therefore Christine Terhune Herrick reminded readers that though serving leftovers raised the "dread of appearing parsimonious," it could also make them look like skilled cooks. "Any one can go to the butcher and order a round of beef or a leg of mutton," she wrote, "but it takes judgment, taste and skill to prepare a ragôut, a salmi, or a really good scallop." But Herrick knew that cultivating those skills in her readers was an uphill battle, and she bemoaned the "reckless consigning of food that could be utilized to the garbage pail or ash barrel." Food is "constantly flung away with a lavishness that would bring the families to speedy penury, were the proverb that wilful waste makes woful want often or promptly justified."
Some writers blamed waste on servants. One even suggested padlocking the ash barrel to keep the help from disposing of vegetable scraps. Indeed, many servants were unsure how to handle kitchen waste: migrants from the American, Irish, or German countrysides might simply not know what to do with garbage in the city, and like housewives who did their own cooking, many lacked the talent or training to create the cunning mince. Moreover, they had little reason to bother. Why would a servant care, asked Christine Terhune Herrick, "if those scraps of cold bacon left from breakfast are summarily disposed of in the swill barrel, or if that bit of corn beeftoo small to appear upon the table againis bestowed upon the first basket beggar who presents himself?" In this as in so much else, the mistress had to maintain control. Servants should not be given sole charge of the kitchen, and they must be supervised. "Human nature is not at so high a standard either above or below stairs as to justify the employer in expecting a hireling to feel an interest the owner herself does not manifest in saving the odds and ends."
The good servant knew her kitchen well. Herrick, who told the story of the sick mistress and the nauseating refrigerator, also reported on a cook who called her mistress to task the morning after a party when the employer began giving orders for the marketing. "I followed her to the pantry, where she had set forth the remains of the last night's feast," the employer related. "It looked like enough to last us a week. The cook pointed to the shelf dramatically. `Shure, mem, it would be sinful to be afther buying anything more til that's all ate up. Don't ye know that wilful waste makes woful want?'" A more typical cook, Herrick warned, would not bother to alert the mistress. "Rather will she think that it's an ill wind that blows nobody good, and quietly appropriate cold vegetables and broken meats for the benefit of her particular friends; nor can she be severely blamed."
The practice of taking food was consistent with the customary rights of servants in many cultures. In the South, taking leftovers, food scraps, and pantry staples was called "pan-toting," and it became standard practicewith and without employer consentduring the transition from slave labor to free. "I indignantly deny that we are thieves," one black cook declared. "We don't steal; we just `take' thingsthey are a part of the oral contract, exprest or implied." Some employers did call it stealing; others used pan-toting as justification for paying low wages. "We know that most of this so-called `food' is left-overs, cold scraps and the like which we would not use on our tables again," one employer admitted. "We know that our servants are paid a small wage." And some employers described pan-toting as gifts or charity. "There are hungry children in the cabin awaiting their mother's return," one explained. "When I give out my meals I bear these little blackberry pickaninnies in mind, and I never wound the feelings of any cook by asking her `what that is she has under her apron.'"
Charity was more clear-cut in the case of the basket beggar, who made the rounds asking for food at back doors. Begging and charity were both common in small towns and cities before public transportation separated poor from prosperous neighborhoods. Nineteenth-century household manuals almost routinely discuss responsibilities to the poor and ideas of Christian charity as part of the duties of the household and an essential element of the "woman's sphere." The benevolent act that opens Little Womenthe girls donating their Christmas breakfast to a poor immigrant familywas obviously exemplary, but the incident that initiated it was not unusual. "Some poor creeter come a-beggin'," explains Hannah, the maid, "and your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for givin' away vittles and drink, clothes, and firin'." By the 1880s, when Herrick published Housekeeping Made Easy, charity was being institutionalized, and housekeepers were advised to keep the poor at arm's length. "The indiscriminate giving away of `broken victuals' at the basement door fosters a profession of begging, and should never be permitted," wrote Herrick. "It also breeds loose ideas of property in the servants."
Despite all the optionsthe beggar's basket, the grease pot, the slop pail, and the hash or ragoutsome food waste might remain. Most of it could be dried and burned in the kitchen range, the easiest alternative in the winter. It might also be dug into the ground. In either case it would not be wasted, providing heat on the one hand and soil nutrients on the other. "As long as there is sufficient garden space around the house," wrote a sanitary engineer in 1890, "the need of removal from the premises rarely exists." But people in the expanding cities did not have that space and their food waste did have to leave the premises, especially in the summer, when their stoves were cold. Thrown out the window or carefully set out on the sidewalk, it became food for stray animals and a pressing public health issue.
Meet the Author
Susan Strasser is the author of the award-winning Never Done: A History of American Housework and Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation. A professor of history at the University of Delaware, she lives near Washington, D.C.
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