7.6 Waste Not: A History of Your Trash

Waste Not: A History of Your Trash

What even counts as trash? It’s a complicated question.

This episode is part of the series Comfort for a Discouraged Housewife.

Full Transcript

Some household chores are more or less a thing of the past. I don’t think I know anyone who churns butter or darns socks. But some household tasks have developed over time and taking out the trash is one of those. Many historical women would not even have understood what that meant exactly.

That’s because one woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure, and historically most women were on the treasure side of that equation.

I learn from the World Bank Group that because I live in North America I generate 2.21 kilograms of waste per day, the highest in the world, which is not an honor (Kaza, 66). The report even breaks it down into percentages, so I’m going to run through my average trash can according to them.

In high income countries like my own, 32% of our trash is food and other green waste (Kaza, 30).  Well, in the past, food scraps were definitely not trash. If you, as a historical housewife, have just made dinner, obviously you and the family devour the best bits. You probably don’t have a fridge for the leftovers, but that will not stop you from saving them anyway. You put them in bowls or plates and set it aside for the next meal. Wire netting or perforated tin boxes might help with the inevitable vermin problem. If it goes bad, that’s tough but advice books can help you there: wash it, recook it with pepper, and hang it up with a muslin bag with charcoal inside (Strasser, Waste, 33). It’ll be fine, truly! And if not, well, you’ve survived food poisoning before.

The most obvious for little bits of leftovers was next day’s soup, but that’s only the beginning of what a clever cook can do: hashes, mincements, bread puddings, meat pies, dumplings. All were invented for the purpose of using up little bits of leftovers.

If you’re the kind of housewife who has servants, you can feed the servants with leftovers too. Indeed, they may help themselves anyway and that may or may not be considered stealing, depending on the particular servitude arrangement. And there may also be someone begging at the back door for whatever you’ve got.

Eventually you will be getting down to the bones and the gristle and the drippings, but do not imagine for a moment that those are trash. All of that is going to be pressed for grease which you will keep in a container in the kitchen. That’s partly for future cooking. But also for making soap and candles. However much grease you have, it’s probably not enough.

Anything not useful for grease you will toss out the window because that’s where the livestock will come to eat it. A swill bucket by the kitchen door was pretty standard in many parts of the world. If you are more concerned about heat than you are about livestock, you can burn it. And any bones remaining can be carved into tool handles or ground into fertilizer.

At no point is any of it trash. In fact, you probably have more urgent uses for leftovers than you have leftovers.

The next biggest category in my hypothetical trash can and recycling bin is paper and cardboard at 25% (Kaza, 30). Many a historical woman never saw a piece of paper in her life. But if she did, she didn’t throw it away. Paper could be reused.

Nineteenth century letter writers often wrote small with no margins. When the page was full, they flipped it 90 degrees and filled it again. I’ll put a picture on the website. It’s hard to read, but not impossible.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Even advertisements could be prized. When rural, isolated women received the first mail-order catalogs they had ever seen, they thought the pictures were so beautiful they hung them on the wall as artwork. If you do have waste paper, it makes great kindling for your fire. And if by some chance it gets tossed out, well, pigs will eat paper too.

13% of our trash is plastic (Kaza, 30), which didn’t exist for most of history. It was invented in 1863 in England, but not invasive until the 20th century.

6% is metal (Kaza, 30), which was always worth keeping because it could be melted down and made into something new. Those who worked in tin or lead were often even paid in old bits of tin or lead from tools no longer usable (Strasser, Waste, 98).

5% is glass (Kaza, 30). Historical women refilled and reused glass containers until they were broken. And glass is fully recyclable. Just melt it down and reuse.

4% is rubber (Kaza, 30). Again reusable. And also again, not available to most historical women since it only grew in certain areas of the world.

4% is wood (Kaza, 30). Eminently burnable. You’ll use it for heat or cooking.

The remaining 11% is labeled other. I don’t really know what your 11% would entail but here are some things historical women might have had:

  • Wood Ashes: except you can turn those into soap
  • Coal Ashes: except those can be fertilizer, or scattered on icy walks or really packed down to keep out the weeds (Strasser, Waste, 237)
  • Broken Crockery: women did actually throw these out, and I’ll talk about that in a bit, but they didn’t jump straight to throwing it out. First they tried to fix it. Catherine Beecher informs us that broken earthenware should be tied up and boiled in milk (quoted in Strasser, Waste, 25). I have a hard time picturing that working, but I admit I haven’t tried it. And if the milk failed, you could try white lead, egg white, lime, plaster of Paris, or even garlic (Strasser, Waste, 25-26). If something was too ugly to bring to the table, you could still use it for storage in the pantry.

And what about fabric? A modern woman might throw away clothes that are worn or ripped or just plain ugly but your foremothers didn’t. As I discussed in episode 7.2, fabric was ghastly expensive. So if your sheets were thinning in the middle, you cut them in half and sewed them back up again so that what was the middle was now the edge. When you made a dress, you kept the scraps to use for patches later. A dress is likely to wear out at the elbows first, but never fear. If you take the sleeves off you can sew them back on the other side. So what was the thinning back of the elbow is now the protected inside of the elbow.

If your dress was out of style you could make it over differently. Maybe add a collar or a ruffle or alter the sleeve length. Wealthy women did this too, and the wealthiest American women sent their dresses to Paris to be made over (Strasser, Waste, 45). It’s mind-boggling that that was more efficient than just getting a new dress, but it was.

If it really was time for the dress to go, you gave it to a servant or the deserving poor or cut it up and made children’s clothes out of it. If it wasn’t good enough for that, you made a quilt or used it for rags or a rug. And when it’s beyond all that, it is still compostable and pigs will eat fabric too.

The point is we have left you with almost nothing to take down to the curb by 6 am for the government-provided trash pickup. That just wasn’t a concept, at least not in a modern sense.

But there is one huge category of waste that wasn’t included in the World Bank’s pie chart because in modern times, you don’t leave it out for garbage collection, you flush it. But in the past, that wasn’t necessarily a separate category of waste management. So it would be wrong to say that people of the past didn’t have a trash problem. They did. It was smaller than ours in the sense that they didn’t have as much stuff and they reused most of it. But it was also larger than ours in the sense that neither government nor technology could be counted on to deal with it.

For whatever small amount of trash you have, whether it be pots broken beyond repair or your own bodily emissions, there are three basic strategies. You can bury it, you can burn it, or you can drown it. Those who buried it are the best known to us because that’s what archaeologists can dig up. That’s why archaeology museums are filled with broken shards of pottery: people threw it out and it didn’t degrade into nothing.

In the city of Çatalhöyük, residents tossed their trash out into piles so dense they could build on it. It’s one of the oldest cities in the world and also one of the oldest landfills in the world. Over 2,000 years of occupancy it became a city on a hill, even if it didn’t start out that way (Hill, 169).

Image: Archaeological dig at Catalhoyuk, Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Maya tossed their trash out their back doors, but they also had ritual termination burnings. An out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new kind of renewal. The Aztecs did the same (Halperin, Elson).

Ur and Babylon had baked brick sewer systems. Piangliangtai has the oldest sewer system in China with earthenware pipes that are 4000 years old. The Minoans had sewers of terracotta pipes. It’s also possible that some Minoan was the first woman in history to enjoy a flush toilet. She flushed it with a reservoir of rainwater collected from the roof and it all washed down to the sewers beneath, which were large, much admired, and possibly the origin of any myths about a labyrinth. Egyptian toilets were a hole with a clay pot underneath with sand (de Feo). The sand could be washed out later to go where? Well, probably into the Nile.

And Rome had the Cloaca Maxima, named for Cloacina, goddess of sewers. Parts of it are still functioning today. But don’t imagine that the empire was guaranteeing this service. If you were wealthy, you paid to have your house hooked up. If you weren’t, you just did your business in a private cesspool or in the street and risked the fine (Havlicek, 363).

None of these sewer systems were exclusively for what we would call sewage. They were largely storm drains, for rain runoff, and any kind of liquid (or not so liquid) waste might get tossed in. Clogs were a common problem, which was another reason not to get your house hooked up, even if you could afford it.

But Rome at least did have a plan for the other kind of waste. To this day, Rome has a large hill called Monte Testaccio. It is not a natural hill at all, but a carefully terraced and managed mountain of millions of broken amphorae from the classical period (Havlicek, 38).

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Rome was also the first European city to have an urban waste management labor force. You deposited your trash with them and they took it out of the city, and if you as a housewife did anything so unneighborly as to dump it on the street, you could be fined (Havlicek, 36).

Elsewhere in the empire though things weren’t so nice.

The streets of Pompeii have raised stepping stones. Why? Because that way you could walk on the stepping stones while all the garbage thrown out of windows settled into an odoriferous sludge.

Image: from de Feo (see sources below)

Chamber pots were a regular part of many women’s lives. Though it consumed far less time than laundry or cooking, Catherine Beecher admitted it was “the most disagreeable item in domestic labor” and also that it was responsible for “the disagreeable and unhealthful effluvium which is almost inevitable in all family residences” (Beecher and Stowe).

What to do with the contents was rarely a question: As one writer put it: “An open window provided an obvious and rarely resisted temptation” (Hole, 43). There it could join the refuse deposited directly there, by women as well as men. In the 17th century, English diarist Samuel Pepys’ mentioned matter-of-factly that when he was at the theater, “My wife was ill, so I was forced to go out of the house with her to Lincoln’s Inn walks, and there in a corner she did her business, and was by and by well, and so into the house again” (quoted in Hole, 43).

And lots of cities dumped all waste of any kind in the river, lake, or ocean. London was among those. And was that river or lake also the source of drinking water? Yes, yes, it was.

Most cities did not have a waste management staff, unless you counted the wild pigs, dogs, and other animals wandering around.

But in some times and places, there were night soil merchants who would collect any little deposits and take them out to the fields to be used and recycled. It really depended on the time and place.

Image: A Chinese woman carrying buckets of night soil. Wikimedia Commons

So the system was far from perfect, but at least the waste levels were much lower than in modern times. If a household could not reuse an item themselves, it could often be passed on to others that could. Even those wild pigs in the cities were also an important food source for the poor.

Housewives may not have needed to take out the trash in the modern sense, but it was a management job for them all the same. They determined which food scraps were edible and which were for the pigs. They patched the clothes and tied the quilts. They also dealt with the peddlers and tradesmen who came to sell and to buy. The tradesmen sold you tinware, and bolts of cloth. You could pay them in cash, but also in rags and bones, which they in turn sold to the paper mills, and in bottles which they sold back to the companies who refilled them and sold them again. This was such a regular thing that Louisa May Alcott was able to have her character Amy sigh “it won’t be my turn to have the rag money for a month” (Alcott, chapter 7). They sold rags to the peddlers every week. And the proceeds were pocket change for the girls of the family.

The whole business was two-way. Goods went into the home, but also back out to the manufacturers because none of it was really trash. All had value. This was so normal that the word “recycle” hadn’t even been invented yet.

What happened was industrialization. In 1867, paper mills found they could make paper out of wood pulp. They didn’t want to buy so many rags now.

By 1880, people ordered their goods from mail-order catalogs which had more selection and better service than an itinerant peddler. But the catalogs demanded cash, not old bones. The goods were now moving only in one direction. As historian Susan Strasser put it, “For the first time in human history, disposal became separated from production, consumption, and use” (Strasser, Waste, 109).

It took people a while to kick their old habits. As late as 1882 a manual on household economy felt the need to define what a wastepaper basket even was. It also told women to empty it every single day (Strasser, Waste, 77). The French word for trash can is la poubelle, named for Eugéne Poubelle, prefect of Paris, who in 1884 insisted that Parisian households must have three bins: one for compost, one for paper and cloth, one for crockery and shells. The public, by the way, was outraged. Old habits die hard, even when new ones are obviously needed.

The more goods were available, the more people bought and the more they threw away. In the 19th century, household advice manuals taught women how to avoid wasting things. But by the early 20th century they were telling you how to avoid wasting time, which is an entirely different mindset. Why mend the hole in that shirt? Just toss it out and buy a new one. Also, women had lost many of the necessary skills. If you cooked and sewed from scratch, you knew how to reuse leftovers or stitch up a tear. Increasingly, women did not know how. Reuse was less and less feasible.

American cities discovered their garbage problem in the 1880s and rose to the challenge before more or less falling on their faces. Rich people already paid to have their trash removed and they didn’t want to pay taxes to remove everyone else’s trash. Poor people ate out of that trash, thank you very much, and they didn’t want it removed either.

But cities were getting ever more populated, and scientists were getting ever closer to understanding the cause of diseases. Women’s clubs like the New York Lady’s Health Protective Association and Atlanta’s African-American Neighborhood Union squared their shoulders and began campaigning. “To keep the world clean—this is one great task for women,” one activist wrote. “She must work on some way with the whole community to see that good methods are used in street sweeping, disposal of sewage, food waste, and all the rubbish that is thrown in the scrapheap” (quoted in Strasser, Waste, 123). It is not coincidental that it is also at this point that cities banished the wild pigs, which may have eaten some of the garbage, but also contributed to the garbage.

By the early 20th century, most American cities had some kind of municipal trash pickup, though the composition varied greatly. In Savannah in 1915, 20% of all collected waste was watermelon rind. In Chicago in 1912, authorities removed 10,000 horse carcasses (Strasser, 125). Europe was pioneering incinerators, reduction, and sanitary landfills, most of which eventually made it across the pond. Also by this point, your own bodily wastes were a separate category, handled differently, which is why I’m dropping them out of the story.

While sanitation is great and all, there were many women for whom all this was a disaster. The poorest of the poor had once made a living sorting through the trash and accepting leftovers at people’s back doors. “It is a great pity if [our] stomachs must suffer to save the noses of the rich,” one said (quoted in Strasser, Waste, 139).

If you happened to feel bad about dumping perfectly good things just because they went out of style, this period provided an answer to that too. Charity shops like Salvation Army, Goodwill, St Vincent de Paul all got their start in this time period. So no guilt whatsoever about your new consumerist habits because you were really helping other people.

Until World War I put a dent in things. In the US, trash decreased by 10% (Strasser, Waste, 153), but we got off that war lightly. Over in Germany, women had a new rallying cry: “Schaffet werte aus dem Nicht!” which translates to “Create value out of nothing!” What this meant was to recycle and reuse everything possible so as to save resources for the war. It was the woman’s way of fighting on the home front, since they weren’t allowed in combat (Weber, 372).

Consumerism bounced back when war was over and frugality swung back around for World War II, this time in many places and on all sides of the war.

Women were advised to save waste fats and donate them for making explosives.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the US, posters appeared with catchy slogans like “Stop the Japs with Scrap!” and “Hit Hitler with Junk!” (Strasser, Waste, 249).

Brigades of women were formally organized to collect the goods. Utah was first to organize and the last to disband because the structure of the Mormon church meant women were already organized down to the neighborhood level. But overall not many enemies were destroyed by these drives. Campaign all you want, but housewives were often reluctant to part with their scraps, fats, and tin pans because times were scarce. When you can’t replace anything, the old stuff starts to look pretty useful after all.

By the end of the war pent-up demand for consumerism was at a bursting point. There simply was more to buy, at least in the US there was money to buy it with, and increasingly it came wrapped in plastic.

Women who had grown up in a different era needed teaching on how to be wasteful. So Reynolds Wrap (a brand of plastic wrap) came with an instruction manual of 1,001 ways to use it. Better Homes and Gardens ran articles on how to use paper towels. Good Housekeeping gushed about the new frozen foods because it meant you didn’t have to throw anything away. What they meant was that corn cobs, pea pods, and many bones were already removed before it entered your house. They failed to notice that women were certainly throwing the package away (Strasser, Waste, 268). The package was so unnoticeable, it didn’t even count.

By the 1950s, first world countries were utterly oblivious to trash. You took it out to the curb once a week and it vanished, no questions asked.

By the 1960s, hippies had questions. After all that trash is going somewhere. Often not somewhere good. And shabby started to look chic.

Of particular interest were drink bottles. Coca-Cola and Pepsi originally sold glass bottles with a deposit. When you brought the bottle back to the store, they gave you l or 2 cents and shipped the bottle back to the company, who refilled it and sold it again. They had a 96% return rate and some bottles were sold as many as 50 times (Elmore).

But the return system meant they needed lots of local bottling stations. If they got rid of returns, the companies could ship further and in only one direction, which consolidated costs. Which they did with huge profits and a correspondingly huge rise in litter.

When people complained, the drink companies lobbied for municipal recycling, which was a win-win because it made people think they cared about the planet, when really they were just getting government to pay for recycling that they used to organize themselves.

Many women balked at recycling because they now had to sort the trash into multiple bins. It had been only a few decades since women had sorted different kinds of waste as a matter of course, but we had forgotten. And it seemed like a hassle.

We now live in a world where we throw away 2.01 billion tons of trash every year, and the number is projected to grow substantially (Kaza). A large percentage of that is of material that will not biodegrade. If archaeologists often are digging up the trash heaps of the past, then archaeologists of the future will have no shortage of material about our era.

Selected Sources

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008.

De Feo, Giovanni, et al. “The Historical Development of Sewers Worldwide.” Sustainability, vol. 6, no. 6, 20 June 2014, pp. 3936–3974, 10.3390/su6063936.

Beecher, Catherine, and Harriet Beecher-Stowe. American Woman’s Home. 1869, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6598/pg6598-images.html. Accessed 11 May 2022.

Elmore, Bartow J. “The American Beverage Industry and the Development of Curbside Recycling Programs, 1950-2000.” The Business History Review 86, no. 3 (2012): 477–501. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41720628.

Elson, Christina M., and Michael E. Smith. “ARCHAEOLOGICAL DEPOSITS FROM THE AZTEC NEW FIRE CEREMONY.” Ancient Mesoamerica 12, no. 2 (2001): 157–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26308001.

Havlíček, Filip and Morcinek, Miroslav. “Waste and Pollution in the Ancient Roman Empire” Journal of Landscape Ecology 9, no.3 (2016): 33-49. https://doi.org/10.1515/jlecol-2016-0013

Hill, Sarah. “Making Garbage, Making Land, Making Cities: A Global History of Waste in and out of Place.” Global Environment 9, no. 1 (2016): 166–95. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26413050.

Hole, Christina. The English Housewife in the Seventeenth Century. London, Chatto & Windus, 1953.

Kaza, Silpa, et al. “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050.” What a Waste 2.0 : A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, 24 Oct. 2018, openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317, 10.1596/978-1-4648-1329-0.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York, Henry Holt, 1980.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want : A Social History of Trash. New York, N.Y, Henry Holt And Co, 2013.

Weber, Heike. “Towards ‘Total’ Recycling: Women, Waste and Food Waste Recovery in Germany, 1914-1939.” Contemporary European History 22, no. 3 (2013): 371–97. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43299391.

Westermann, Andrea. “When Consumer Citizens Spoke Up: West Germany’s Early Dealings with Plastic Waste.” Contemporary European History 22, no. 3 (2013): 477–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43299395.

Zheng, Xiao. (2015). “The ancient urban water system construction of China: The lessons from history for a sustainable future.” International Journal of Global Environmental Issues. 14. 187-199. 10.1504/IJGENVI.2015.071864.

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