I’m reading a really fun book which is a GREAT overview of the Victorian era as a whole: Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House (2003).
In this book, Flanders answers a lot of questions I’ve long had about the domestic side of Victorian life. Really mundane, and even gross, things about common living that you would never encounter in Victorian literature. One of those questions I had was, “What did the average middle-class Victorian household do with their trash? Did they have garbage men, like we do? Were landfills a thing?”
Turns out (and once you think about it, it’s hardly surprising), Victorians were goddamned recycling superstars. Of course, it wasn’t thought of as “recycling” at the time. It was just common sense. Why throw away something if you could possibly get another use out of it, or even make money from selling it on to someone else?
“Rubbish was divided into two parts: dust (coal dust, ashes from the fires) and refuse (everything else). From 1875 refuse was removed by the municipality as a legal obligation. Until then many suburbs had no regular collections at all, and residents had to arrange for removal as necessary, paying per collection. For this reason, as well as the moral value of thrift, housewives were encouraged to reuse everything possible.
“There was, of course, less to dispose of: packaging as we know it had yet to be created, and goods came either unwrapped or wrapped in paper. Open fires allowed an overly dirtied paper (that had wrapped meat or fish, for example) to be disposed of immediately. Cleaner paper was kept for reuse, and really clean paper had two further uses. One was as lavatory paper . . . Secondly, many households used waste paper to make ‘spills’ – long strips of twisted paper, used to light fires or candles” (85).
“One system of disposal that has vanished was the number of street traders who regularly visited the back doors to buy various items. Paper was bought by the paper mills, and by manufacturers of papier-mache furniture and ornaments. Dealers also bought old iron, metal, wood and lead . . . Old textiles and bones were bought by the rag-and-bone man, who sold his wares to paper mills and to glue, gelatine, match, toothpick and fertilizer manufactures” (85-86).
“Kitchen waste, was, of course, the main item to be disposed of regularly, and advice books were full of information on what could be got rid of, in what way . . . . Cooks who were not thrifty put all the kitchen leavings into a bucket. The content was called ‘wash’, and the washman visited regularly to buy it: he then sold it as ‘hog-wash’, or pigswill. Employers were warned solemnly about the evils of this system. First, it gave servants no incentive to reuse food. Some might even be encouraged to dishonest: by telling an inexperienced housewife that she had to pay the washman to take the wash away, the cook could pocket money from both the wife and the washman” (87).
And how, pray tell, did you reuse food? “fish heads were used to make fish soup; vegetables and the water they were cooked in went to make soup or gravy, as did plate scrapings and wine; stale bread was used for breadcrumbs, and for puddings. Anything that survived these operations was then fed to the dogs, cats or chickens. Tea leaves were rinsed and scattered over carpets to aid in collecting dust when sweeping, then they were burned in the range; cold tea was used to clean windows, or as a tonic for the eyes; mutton and veal fat could be clarified and used for frying” (87-88).
Not going to lie, a lot of this sounds ass-nasty to me. But that’s just probably my modern consumerist talking.
Ashes tended to be taken away two or three times a year by dustmen. “British usage persists in the notion that the people who remove our rubbish – the dustmen – are still taking away ‘dust’ – coal dust from the kitchen range” (65). She goes on to explain that this is why, in the UK, rubbish bins still have “No hot ashes” written on them. I’ve always wondered why that is every time I take out the trash.
Americans seem to have abandoned calling them dustbins, rebranding them “garbage cans”. However, I will point out that I’ve lived in multiple places across the UK over 5 years, and I have never once heard anyone refer to them as “dustmen”. As far as I’m aware, the modern parlance is “binmen”.