Written by Verity Limond
Recycling is not an invention of the twentieth century. There are numerous examples of the reuse and remodelling of materials in different archaeological contexts, ranging from glass to metal to paper pulp. To say that ‘people in the past reused things’ is almost as pointless a statement as ‘people in the past ate food.’ In eighteenth and nineteenth-century London, the busy foreshore of the Thames presented an unusual opportunity for the recovery and reuse of lost or discarded objects, as mudlarks searched at low tide for anything that had resale value. Now practised under licence as a hobby, mud-larking was originally a job for those with few skills who earned little while enduring harsh working conditions. It could also be viewed as one of the precursors to modern recycling, because it presented a way for urban rubbish – which often included items such as old rope and scrap metal that were directly linked to the bustling river trade – to be recovered and put to new use. In Bleak House, Charles Dickens famously described a second-hand bric-a-brac shop with its multitude of goods sourced from everywhere that represented this Victorian world of resale and reuse:
[E]verything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold… [from] blacking bottles, medicine bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, [and] ink bottles… … … [to] old crackled parchment scrolls and discoloured dog’s-eared law papers.
Working on a larger scale than the mudlarks, rag-and-bone men (they were predominately men although some women were certainly involved in the trade in the twentieth century) travelled with handcarts or horse-drawn carts through British towns and cities to collect waste from householders that could be repurposed or resold. In his wide-ranging 1851 encyclopaedia of trades and activities practised by poorer socio-economic classes in London, journalist Henry Mayhew refers to various types of collectors who made their livings finding or buying objects that could be sold onto different industries for reuse. Mayhew distinguishes between such jobs as ‘bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers’, ‘dredgermen’, ‘mud-larks’ and ‘sewer-hunters’, among others. All of these jobs involved gathering up materials or debris such as old fabric, waste metal, animal bones and items lost in the waterways. Objects found in good enough condition could be sold on as second-hand items, while animal bones were used in glue making and rags could be recycled into new fabric, used to make paper or stuffed into soft furnishings. Both woollen rags and boiled bones could be added to fertiliser.
Rag-and-bone merchants continued to apply their trade in the twentieth century, although their revenue dropped considerably after the Second World War. Oral histories tell us that twentieth-century rag-and-bone men sometimes paid for the waste they were carting away in cash and sometimes in benefit-in-kind, such as goldfish for children or rubbing stones for scrubbing doorsteps. By the 1950s, rag-and-bone men were collecting items ranging from wireless sets to mattresses to bicycles, and sometimes worked out of larger depots which were, in essence, early recycling centres. The practice was dying out in the 1960s, however, due to increased regulation of waste management and falling revenue, although it was brought back into the public eye by the popular sitcom Steptoe and Son that ran from 1962 to 1974.
The rag-and-bone trade certainly lacked comfortable working conditions, with nineteenth and twentieth-century merchants recounting the struggles of working long hours in all weathers, dragging heavily laden handcarts and dealing with unpleasant waste as well as social stigma. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, when rag-and-bone collectors had a firm role in the urban economy, Mayhew recorded that their income was only enough to ‘support a wretched life.’ Later, an attempt before the Second World War to unionise rag-and-bone men failed and was never revived post-war. However, the trade allowed a certain degree of freedom in that most rag-and-bone collectors were independent merchants and had some measure of control over how and where they worked.
In the decades following the Second World War, rag-and-bone men could be regarded as either in a (losing) competition against municipal recycling facilities or as helping to prevent the increasing problems of fly tipping. In fact, both are probably true, with the added complication that when firmer licensing regulations came into force, some rag-and-bone men became fly tippers themselves by charging people to collect rubbish and then disposing of it irresponsibly.
There is no sense in romanticising past practices such as mud-larking and rag-and-bone collecting that were hard, dirty and badly paid. But if we acknowledge that there is real value in learning from the past, these are examples of traditional sustainability practices that could be revived and improved for the twenty-first century. Actively reselling, reusing and remaking waste in a way that earns people money rather than being an act of charity is a sound practice that already happens today. Looking to the past for inspiration could further diversify actions being taken to mitigate environmental damage while at the same time being a practical application for history and archaeology.
Dickens, C. (1853/1996) Bleak House. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Feikert, C. (2017) “Regulating the Rag and Bone Man.” Law Librarians of Congress Blog, 8 August. Available at: https://blogs.loc.gov/law/2017/08/regulating-the-rag-and-bone-man/.
Internet Movie Database (n.d.) “Steptoe and Son.” Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0057785/?ref_=ttqt_qt_tt.
Kuper, J. (2006) “Final Collection.” The Guardian, 5 August. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/money/2006/aug/05/careers.work4.
Mayhew, H. (1851) London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 2. Project Gutenberg.
Russell, M. (2022) Mudlark’d: Hidden Histories from the River Thames. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
The Manchester Guardian (1954) “The Rag-and-Bone Collector – Post-War Style.” 5 August, p. 3.
The Manchester Guardian (1958) “A Day in the Life of the Rag-and-Bone Man.” 2 June, p. 5.
Wood, J. R. (2022) “Approaches to interrogate the erased histories of recycled archaeological objects.” Archaeometry 64, 187-205.
Featured image credit: Rag-and-bone man, Streatham, London, 1985. Photograph by Tony Rees. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rag-and-bone_man,_Streatham,_London,_1985.jpg. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.