Since I started studying the history of trash, I've become devoted to using rags. Cloth is superior to paper for most household chores, and, having lived many years in the Pacific Northwest, I like to think I'm saving trees. But I wash and dry my rags by machine, using clean water, detergent and electricity. I may be a zealot, but I'm a turn-of-the-millennium working woman, and I'm not crazy.
My scholarship and my housework have always informed each other, but the complex lessons of history rarely offer intelligible solutions to modern problems. Rather, the history of trash reveals complicated and gradual changes in our relationship to the material world.
America has become literally a consumer culture: We buy what we need instead of making things or making do. Our daily habits are embedded in that culture. I can choose not to use paper towels, but it's not easy to opt out of the standards of cleanliness and convenience that go along with disposables.
To get some perspective on how much has changed, we can look back at daily life in the previous century. People of all classes practiced what I call the stewardship of objects: valuing things for the labor they represented and the materials from which they were made, and repairing and reusing them as long as possible.
The 19th Century: Repair, Reuse
Without trash collectors or much cash for purchases, most 19th-century American women had to make do with whatever was at hand. "Keep a bag for odd pieces of tape and strings," instructed Lydia Maria Child in "The American Frugal Housewife" (1829), "they will come in use. Keep a bag or box for old buttons."
Such books of household advice were full of ideas for using stored materials. Coal ashes could be mixed with well-rotted manure and used as fertilizer or scattered on slippery ice. Corncobs could be dipped in tar and resin and dried for kindling; corn husks could be mattress fill. Used tea leaves would "brighten the looks of a carpet, and prevent dust. They should be scattered, and rubbed about with a broom, and then swept off."
The lives of thinning bedsheets were often extended by tearing them down the middle and sewing the outer edges together. "A double sheet can be made to double its existence," wrote Mrs. Julia McNair Wright in "The Complete Home: An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Life and Affairs," published in the 1870s. In 1841, Catharine Beecher suggested that broken china be mended "by tying it up, and boiling in milk." One book recommended repairing broken glass with garlic juice ("Stand the article upon a plate, or other level surface, and let it remain undisturbed for a fortnight").
As the United States industrialized, the same wholesalers, peddlers and storekeepers who introduced new manufactured goods to households acted as the middlemen in reusing waste materials. These people collected, sorted and graded the materials--old rags, bones, bottles, metals--and sold them to manufacturing concerns.
Of all the household materials so collected, rags were the most important. Thrifty housewives mended and patched clothes many times; scraps were salvaged for children's clothing, patchwork quilts and rag rugs.
But the early American papermaking industry also depended almost completely on a supply of used cloth. As the industry grew, therefore, a rag shortage developed. So entrepreneurs investing in paper mills, bookstores and newspapers tried to make it worthwhile for housewives to give up their rags.
In an 1807 advertisement, a New York state mill tried a poetic appeal:
The scraps, which you reject, unfit
To clothe the tenant of a hovel,
May shine in sentiment and wit,
And help to make a charming novel.
By the early 20th century, rag collecting had become the province of the poor, and the old habits of reuse had taken on new meanings in a developing consumer society. Cities and towns took responsibility for collecting and disposing of household refuse, making it easier to throw things out. Complex trash disposal systems and expensive equipment promoted the notion that refuse was a technical concern, the domain of experts.
Old-fashioned reuse and recycling did not disappear overnight. The transition to a consumer culture was complicated and gradual. During the first decades of the 20th century, most people still threw away relatively little. New ways coexisted with old.
But the potent advertising rhetoric of convenience and cleanliness sold a wide variety of products that were transforming Americans' relationship to waste. The ideal of the durable and reusable was yielding to new standards of ease and hygiene. The new ways were entrenched by 1929, in principle if not always in practice, and not even the Great Depression was enough to reverse what most people saw as progress. When America went to war in 1941, it took a major propaganda effort to convince citizens to return to habits of reuse that their grandparents had taken for granted.
WWII: 'Make It Do, Or Do Without'
Scrap drives figure importantly in home-front memories of World War II. For two years, Americans participated in hundreds of national, state and local efforts to collect scrap metal, rubber, and paper. The American Fat Salvage Committee organized the collection of kitchen fats for use in making glycerine, used in nitroglycerine, a component of certain explosives.
Short-lived programs gathered other materials. Milk and beverage bottles were collected in some places, as were furs. Utah women collected jewelry to ship to the Pacific so that GIs could barter with "South Seas natives." During 1943, old silk stockings were collected for use in gunpowder bags used to shoot shells from big guns; silk burned fast and clean, so no fragments would ignite the next bag of powder.
The wartime government urged conservation. "If you don't need it, DON'T BUY IT," said the back cover of War Ration Book No. 3. Another slogan urged, "Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without." The Consumer's Pledge for Total Defense promised, "I will buy carefully. I will take good care of the things I have. I will waste nothing."
On the surface, the shortages and propaganda of World War II seem to have induced Americans to retain a consciousness of waste. Most women mended at least some clothing. So many reused cooking fat that the government had difficulty getting them to part with it for the sake of the boys overseas.
But the tremendous efforts required to mobilize Americans to contribute scrap to the war effort did not return them to 19th-century values. And they did not significantly slow their embrace of consumerist ideals of convenience, fashion and obsolescence. The scrap drives stand out in public memory, but memory disguises how much the culture had already changed.
Scrap drives had more utility as propaganda than as a means of collecting strategic materials, and their importance has been exaggerated. Not all materials were donated; the government paid for rubber, fats and some scrap metal. These drives offered Americans a way to contribute to the war effort without sacrificing too much. The child who threw a favorite toy truck on the scrap pile was photographed for the local paper, but most people contributed trash. Indeed, government pamphlets stressed that they should contribute trash, not things they would want to replace by buying new items.
Thus, paradoxically, the very emphasis on scrap reinforced not the traditional stewardship of objects, but the newer habits of throwing things away.
Those habits became entrenched after the war, as marketers promoted disposable products, sanitary landfills triumphed as the disposal method of choice, and garbage disposers turned food that once would have been eaten by animals, if not people, into sewage. Engineers debated the ethics of incorporating planned obsolescence into product design. The richest culture in the world, priding itself on abundance, embraced a new principle: Throwing away is good.
Postwar Chic: It's Fun! It's Gone!
"Next time you take out the trash, why not go out in style?" The 1994 magazine advertisement for Color Scents depicts a zany old woman, preening in hot-pink pants and a flowing pink print blouse. Her outfit matches her kitchen, with its pink refrigerator, pink dishes, pink trash can. She carries a full plastic trash bag. The bag is pink. Color Scents, "the Designer Bag from Ruffies," could also be purchased in green, blue and yellow.
Scented, colored plastic trash bags, non-biodegradable and headed for the landfill, represent a distinctively late-20th-century mind-set. Disposal has become a positive affair: It is fun to purchase things, use them briefly and throw them out. With Color Scents, materials for handling waste may be seen as part of the ever-changing assemblage of goods that makes up a personal image in the empire of the ephemeral.
The idea that the act of disposing is a good thing is not new. But the Color Scents ad epitomizes an actual celebration of trash making that only emerged after World War II. Postwar innovations, many based on war research, made possible qualitatively new levels of household cleanliness and ease. New materials, especially plastics of all kinds, became the basis for a relationship to the material world that required consumers to buy things rather than make them and to throw things out rather than fix them.
"Disposability" became a selling point for postwar consumer goods, and advertising frequently used the word "freedom" to connote convenience, ease and emancipation from the physical labor once required of everyone without servants--that is, most people.
Although advertising rarely appealed directly to capitalist ideology, its language was informed by the rhetoric of the Cold War. Consumer goods were often described as weapons in the fight against communism. Buying became a surrogate for liberty, freedom of choice a matter of purchasing, and disposability a metaphor for freedom. "A commitment to democracy--and a certain indifference to waste and untidiness--are prerequisite to abundance," historian John A. Kouwenhoven said in 1959, and conversely, waste was "as much a result of democracy as abundance."
Seven years later, the Scott Paper Co. kicked off what would once have seemed an unlikely phenomenon: a fad for disposable paper dresses. Ads for Scott's paper towels and toilet paper included a coupon for a paper dress "created to make you the conversation piece at parties. . . . Wear it for kicks--then give it the air." Scott received half a million orders and spawned numerous imitators. American Home magazine described paper dresses, pillowcases and furniture as "inexpensive, decorative, gay, immediately available and easily disposable . . . Because they are not forever, just for fun, paper furnishings can be bought on impulse without the usual lasting commitment."
But if the paper dress was a fad, disposable garments were not. They were immediately adopted by medical facilities for patients, nurses and surgeons--and remain in use today.
The environmental movement of the 1970s cast the gleeful throwaway mentality in a grimmer light. Activists began voluntary recycling programs and pressured municipalities to adopt curbside recycling. But the new programs could not keep up with the ever-rising tide of trash. From 1970 to 1993, recycling increased domestic waste recovery from 7 percent to nearly 22 percent. Over the same period of time, solid waste production increased from 3.2 to 4.4 pounds per person per day--about 33 percent.
Still, recycling became a mainstream value and a viable option for handling solid waste. The bucket of bottles and the stack of newspapers at the curb--like my household rags--have become symbols of care for the environment.
To call recycling symbolic, however, is not to diminish its significance. Recycling and reuse remind us of the threads that bind our individual households to the planet and the activities of our daily lives to its future. That awareness is new to the late 20th century, and it provides a source of hope as well as a basis for fear. We are not likely to revive the stewardship of objects and materials, formed in a bygone culture of handwork. But perhaps new ideas of morality, utility, common sense and the value of labor--based on the stewardship of the earth and of natural resources--can replace it.
Susan Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, is the author of several books on the history of American daily life. This article is adapted from her new book, "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash" (Metropolitan Books).