“Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash”

A close look at garbage comes up with gold.

Topics: Books,

The next time you think about the Constitution, consider this: It might once have been worn by somebody. Probably by many people, on the evidence of Susan Strasser’s “Waste and Want,” a smart and lively history of 200 years of American offal, rubbish, refuse and trash and the various means employed for their disposal. In Colonial times, paper was made from cotton and linen rags that had been boiled, mashed to pulp and pressed into thin sheets; during the Revolution, when all paper was scarce, “rag drives” were conducted on patriotic grounds as well as through appeals to the ultimate arbiters of any rag’s destiny, women.

“When the young Ladies are assured, that by sending to the Paper Mill an old handkerchief, no longer fit to cover their snowy Breasts, there is a Possibility of its returning to them again in the more pleasing form of a Billet Doux from their Lovers, the Proprietors flatter themselves with great Success,” read an advertisement for a paper manufacturer in North Carolina. Neither was the donation of rags expected to be voluntary, as recycling is now. In earlier times, people were paid for their trash, either in cash by wholesalers or, more often, in barter by the army of peddlers who wandered the United States in search of scrap metal, ashes, bones, fuel and fertilizers until well into this century.

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“Nothing is inherently trash,” Strasser declares — or wasn’t, before the rise of the consumer culture and the triumph of packaging and planned obsolescence. “Waste and Want” is the record of a catalytic divide, a plainly unbridgeable chasm between America’s not so distant past, when the only things people threw away were “broken pottery, glass, and other trash that would neither decompose nor serve as animal feed,” and the waste-strewn society of today, in which the sheer mass of useless and often toxic junk that feeds American prosperity and “convenience” threatens to choke more than the rivers and landfills. “American culture,” Strasser writes, “offers the world’s most advanced example of the ‘throwaway society.’”

Strasser’s earlier studies of the history of housework and the rise of the American mass market have prepared her admirably well for “Waste and Want.” If trash is not inherently trash, neither is its disposal merely that. Women had charge of the trash for most of recorded time, and its history is linked inexorably with sexual liberation, the welfare of children, the 19th century “social question” and the vagaries of class. Strasser’s richly detailed and always entertaining narrative stops short of any proposed solution to the now acute problem of waste disposal. In general, she agrees with French critic Gilles Lipovetsky that we are living in an “empire of the ephemeral,” whose “central feature,” Strasser writes, “is the extension of the principle of fashion — obsolescence on the basis of style.” If we can never hope — or desire — to return to an organic process of consumption, reuse and decay, we can still hope, along with Strasser, that “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.”

Peter Kurth, a regular contributor to Salon Books, is the author of "Isadora: A Sensational Life." He lives in Burlington, Vt.

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