Rubbish?

In preparation for our upcoming exhibit at the museum, I’ve been reading a lot about trash.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The exhibit is called “Green Fields, Black Smoke,” and it’s all about the ways in which people in the 19th century thought about the environment.  We often hear from visitors “People were so much greener back then!”  And we try to say, very sweetly: “Not exactly.”  This exhibit is our way to answer that question a bit more directly–at least for the next several months.

Anyway, I was in the middle of Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash and got to her chapter on junk men and peddlers.  Instantly, I thought of Papa’s junk shop in All-of-a-Kind Family.  As I continued to read, I was amazed to see that she quoted the scene in Famer Boy where Mama bargains with the peddler.

For those that haven’t recently reread those books, I’ll briefly recap the scene.  Alas, my copy of AoAKF is at work so just paraphrases there.

In Farmer Boy, the entire family is absolutely thrilled when Nick Brown arrives with his amazing wagon arrives with lots and lots of shiny tin.  He spend the night, telling stories, and the next day it’s time for business.  Mother brings out rags she’s been saving for a year, and they begin to haggle.  “For a long time they talked and argued.  Shining tinware and piles of rags were all over the porch.  For every pile of rags that Nick Brown added to the big pile, Mother asked more tinware that he wanted to trade her.  They were both having a good time, joking and laughing and trading.” (Farmer Boy, p. 138)

Now here’s what I never understood about that scene, something I didn’t completely understand until reading Strasser’s book.  Why on earth would Nick Brown want that many rags?  Surely, he’s not making quilts.  How is that even a fair trade?  The answer, my friends, is paper.

In the mid-19th century, most paper was made not out of wood pulp, but fiber.  You know the old paper that seems to have held up so well over the last 150 years?  Probably made out of someone’s worn out muslin, linen or cotton.  In the 1860s, when Farmer Boy is set, publishing is really starting to take off, so the demand for good, clean rags was high.  Paper factories even wrote advertising jingles about how the paper you’re writing a love letter on might once have graced the very body of the woman you are writing to.  Eventually, the demand was so high that factories had to turn to other sources for paper, including wood pulp.  But Mother and Nick Brown were at the center of the 19th century recyling circle.

But what about Papa’s junk shop?  All-of-a-Kind Family takes place almost 50 years later, in a very different environment.  Papa runs the hub for peddlers–his storage area is divided into different categories, including paper and metal.  The incident that came to my mind was when a rich man sold books to a peddler–and the girls were able to own their very first books.  The peddlers hang out with Papa and dote on the girls.  They, too, are part of recycling, 19th century style.  However, for these peddlers, it was generally a cash transaction, not bartering like in Farmer Boy.

So what happened?  Why aren’t peddlers still coming to our doors?  Some of the explanation comes from the factories wanting to deal with raw materials and not spend the time and money to reuse things.  Technology just got better.  I’m sure you’ve heard some of the recent reports about with today’s economy, it no longer pays to recycle.  The demand has gotten smaller, but the supply has held steady or increased.

Cities also figured out how to deal with trash.  Trash collection began ocurring regularly around the turn of the century, depending on your location.  If you had to personally deal with disposing of everything, wouldn’t you throw less away?  But if you didn’t have to worry, it’s much easier to toss.

And finally, various charities, such as The Salvation Army, began who collected your cast-off goods–and made you feel good about passing something on.  Thus, the peddlers became extinct. 

Can you think of any other peddlers in children’s literature?

Children’s Books:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

All-0f-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

History Books:

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser.