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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Rag Recycling (p. 46)

From chapter "Garbage"

As manufacturing businesses proliferated in the US during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and as the population continued to grow dramatically, the demand for certain manufacturing materials began to grow. This was especially true for rags and cloth scraps, since at the time paper was made solely out of cloth fibers and not out of wood. It’s around this time that we find systems we can parallel with modern recycling systems. Reuse of materials within households and homesteads was common, as was the reuse of materials in workshops and even factories. However, the 1800s were full of historically documented and well-organized systems for bringing used materials from households back to urban scrap dealers and manufacturers, where these materials were then reprocessed into consumer goods.

This occurred largely through surprisingly sophisticated and widespread systems of barter. Shopkeepers and roaming peddlers would exchange manufactured goods from afar for quantities of used rags, bones, or certain metals and other recyclable materials. Some peddlers were employed by dealers and provided with equipment, and others worked more independently. The most reliable sources of information we have come from these dealers, who as businessmen kept detailed records of what was bought and sold. In some instances they set precise prices and terms for barter, so that the peddlers in their employ would not attempt to negotiate. The peddlers would travel from home to home, mostly in rural areas, where they would gather materials before heading back to their urban or railroad depots to drop off their collections and restock.

This system inherently placed limitations on the scale of collection and accumulation. Itinerant peddlers could only travel with whatever goods they could carry in backpacks, or sometimes on horses or in horse-drawn wagons. This meant that the recycling and exchange system was necessarily kept near human scale. It also meant that human relationships played an important role in dealing with rubbish.

Lists kept by materials dealers show a wide variety of materials accepted for barter. Some were materials we’d expect to see, like metals, rubber, glass, and most importantly rags. However, items listed were not limited strictly to conventional recyclables. They also included organic materials or goods such as “fruit, flax, mustard seed, woolen yarn, beeswax, butter, eggs, feathers, bristles, hair, horns, bones, and the skins of deer, sheep, calves, bear, mink, raccoon, and even house cats.” Perishables like eggs and butter were resold at retail, such as in the general stores which acted as relay points for the dealers.

Many of the other materials were sold to industrial manufacturers. Paper manufacturers required a material to fill in the gaps between fibers in their porous paper. This material, called sizing, was made by cooking down animal products like horns, hoofs, and scraps of hide (hoofs and bones, of course, were also used to make glue). Fats were of great value for lighting and lubrication in any factory. These were eventually replaced by petroleum derivatives, but the first oil well wasn’t even drilled in the US until more than a century after these peddlers were well established. Fats were also processed to extract glycerine, which was used to manufacture explosives like nitroglycerine and dynamite.

But from the beginning rag collection drove the development of these recycling systems. Rags and cloth scraps were needed to make paper, since wood pulp wasn’t used to manufacture paper in the US until the twentieth century. Recycled rags were the fundamental requirement for paper manufacturing since the first paper mill was opened in the US in 1690. That mill was the Rittenhouse Mill, near Philadelphia, which made new paper from waste linen, cotton, and old paper.

Rags were collected by storekeepers and peddlers, who relayed them to paper mills through “rag routes.” Newspapers and printers also collected rags, and used the bundles of rags to pay their paper suppliers. Indeed, most of these transactions were pure barter, with no money involved.

In the 1800s, clothing was still produced by tailors and in households, so there were very few large-scale sources of scrap fabric. To deal with constant shortages of rags, paper mills embarked on large-scale propaganda campaigns to convince women to save their rags and send them to the mills. These campaigns often included newspaper advertisements and witty or poetic slogans. For example, take this piece of verse from 1807: “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.” This and other pieces of propaganda at the time emphasized the benefits of recycling in class terms—from hovel to novel. This contrasts starkly to twentieth century propaganda, in which being of a higher class became identified with wastefulness rather than thrift.

Patriotism, also, was commonly identified with conservation. A 1734 advertisement requesting rags claimed that it was “the Duty of every Person . . . to help forward so useful to a Manufactory; Therefore I intreat all those that are Lovers of their Country, to be very careful of their Linnen Rags,” and gave instructions on where to send them. The coming of the American Revolution dramatically increased local demand for rags and patriotic calls for rag saving. Paper products from England were banned, and Americans urgently wanted paper for printing propaganda, for printing money, and for the manufacture of cartridge cases.