Do you think we have problems with trash? That it's a modern problem caused by too much waste and not enough care about the items being thrown out? Well, garbage has been a problem for cities for hundreds of years.
This installment of the history of garbage covers up to the turn of the 20th century. And, as much as I love studying 17th century social life in London (back when dolphins in the Thames were a common sight), following only the colonies will be sufficient. So, here are a few facts to help you get an idea of the more recent history of garbage.
During Colonial times in the U.S., paper was made from cotton and linen rags. "Rag drives" were held to collect scraps which were then boiled, mashed and pressed into paper. Two hundred years ago scrap metal, ashes, bones and fat (used to make soap and fertilizers) were sold. So, instead of paying for someone to haul these items away, people got paid for this type of trash. In fact, the only things thrown out were glass, broken pottery, and other trash that wouldn't decompose or be fed to the animals.
Fast forward to the mid-1800s where population increases in city centers compounded trash problems. Pigs were let loose in city streets to eat through the garbage that was left out and they, in turn, left behind their own waste products. This not only brought on a horrible smell (both the garbage and the pig waste) but also attracted vermin and rats - even the White House was not immune to this.
Streets were lined under several feet of manure, waste and human fecal matter rendering it unsafe to walk on sidewalks (and under second story windows from which people emptied their chamber pots). It wasn't until 1866 that New York City forbade the throwing of dead animals and garbage into the streets.
During this time there were over 3 million horses working in American cities, each producing over 20 pounds of manure and gallons of urine per day, most of which was left on the streets. And what did you do with your horses when they died? You couldn't transport them out of the city because, well, they were your transportation. So, you left them in the street. In 1880, New York City scavengers removed 15,000 horse carcasses from the streets.
In 1900, American cities began to estimate and record collected wastes. According to one estimate, each American produced annually: 80 - 100 pounds of food waste; 50 - 100 pounds of rubbish; 300 - 1,200 pounds of wood or coal ash - up to 1,400 pounds per person. Not too surprisingly, around the turn of the century, 180 garbage incinerators were built in cities across the U.S. and small and medium sized towns built piggeries, where swine were fed fresh or cooked garbage.
The next installment coming up covers the 20th century. During this time came wealth and with that a throwaway society where the focus of products is on planned obsolescence based on fashion rather than durability.
For those of you calculating the weight of your food waste, how do you compare to the 1900 averages?