Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash

by Susan Strasser

Published by Metropolitan Books

355 pages, 1999

Buy it online





Oh, Rubbish!

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


I still remember my maternal grandmother darning my boyhood socks, and how the imperfectly patched sections (usually on the heel) would scrape my foot, leaving me uncomfortable after just a few hours of wear. I swore then that as an adult, I would never resort to fixing frayed footwear. And I never have. (Heck, I don't think I even own a needle and thread anymore.) But reading Susan Strasser's surprisingly engaging Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash has made me feel, if not guilty for my abject thriftlessness, at least more appreciative of the efforts to which my grandmother and others before her went to maintain and reuse their hard-earned possessions.

Strasser traces the roots of America's modern "throwaway culture" back only to the late 19th century, when "the growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things." Before then, the United States had boasted of recycling systems much more arcane -- and class-stratified -- than those with which we're now familiar. Ragpickers roamed city streets, collecting old fabric for sale to paper mills. "Swill children" went door to door, amassing kitchen refuse for reuse as fertilizer or hog food. Secondhand clothing that wasn't handed down in families or cut up for use in rugmaking was considered valuable enough to advertise in newspapers. Old barrels and other wooden packing containers were refashioned into household furniture. "Things that could not be used in any other way," Strasser explains, "were burned; especially in the homes of the poor, trash heated rooms and cooked dinners." Until the 20th century, Americans generated very little of what they considered waste.

However, population growth and urban expansion posed challenges to the hygienic elimination of rubbish. It's one thing for everybody in a country hamlet to pitch their fetid refuse into their backyards -- it is quite another when you have hundreds of thousands of people doing it within close proximity. By the turn of the last century, America's street-cleaning problem alone was staggering. Fireplace ashes, sewage, horse manure and dead animals littered city roads. As Strasser recalls: "In 1912 -- when horses were already sharing the streets with motor vehicles -- Chicago removed ten thousand horse carcasses from public thoroughfares."

In reaction, municipalities passed anti-dumping ordinances and established strategies for the gathering of recyclable materials. Edwardian-era health reformers welcomed this heightened attention to sanitation, but at the same time, it altered notions of what was and was not garbage. Manufacturers and retailers exploited that redefinition, slowly equating used goods and their reuse with poverty. "'Disposability,'" Strasser recalls, "was promoted for its ability to make people feel rich: with throwaway products, they could obtain levels of cleanliness and convenience once available only to people with many servants." The consequent rise of consumerism has led to a loss of general knowledge about how to repair or reuse things. It has also left North America with landfills (abundant in non-recyclable coffee cups) and backcountry towns that depend for their economic survival on the dumping of refuse from overcrowded cities.

Strasser, who has previously penned histories of housework and mass marketing, exhibits an extensive knowledge of her subject. (Sometimes too knowledgeable: Her section on domestic materials shortages during World War II, for instance, could have used more brutal editing.) But Waste and Want is no boring, scholarly treatise; Strasser talks trash with a wry sense of humor and cossets her tale of garbage inside a broader look back at the minutiae of everyday life throughout American history. She even manages to find some hope amidst our worsening consumerist behavior, applauding today's curbside recycling programs and endorsing the multiplication of garage sales as a commonsense response to our over-accumulation of everything from lamps and crockery, to romance novels and, well, unmendable socks. | January 2000


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the senior editor of January Magazine and a habitual recycler.