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Waste and Want
A Social History of Trash
By Susan Strasser
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1999 Susan Strasser
All rights reserved.
The Stewardship of Objects
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. Grier, 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 do — in the economic framework of production and consumption — and 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 slop 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 candles — not 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. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Waste and Want by Susan Strasser. Copyright © 1999 Susan Strasser. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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