Friday, July 20, 2007

Waste and Want

Fresh Kills 3, by the photographer Susan Wides (2000).

Title: Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (New York: Henry Holt, 1999).

Author: Susan Strasser, of the history department at the University of Delaware. She calls herself a "historian of American consumer culture" and is currently a Senior Resident Scholar at the Hagley Museum and Library’s Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society (at Delaware). Her other books include Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982); Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market (1989); Getting and Spending: European and American Consumer Societies in the Twentieth Century (1998); and Commodifying Everything: Relationships of the Market (2003).

Trash, which is a culturally defined category, has meant wildly different things to Americans from colonial times through today. Before about 1900, American households were "closed" systems: domestic objects were used and reused and split up into parts and used again, reflecting the scarcity the pre-industrial era. Strasser adopts Levi-Strauss' idea of "bricolage", writing that Americans who re-worked dresses and made soap out of fat and fed chickens with food waste were bricoleurs, playing with available materials in order to serve their needs. After the turn-of-the-century tipping point, however, Americans, aided by advertisers and marketers eager to sell products, became more and more accustomed to the convenience of disposal, beginning to see it as their right (convenience equalling freedom which equalled the American way). Trash disposal became the province of experts, and bricolage became the province of the poor. (There are a lot of small details in this book, which is rich in description, so the chapter summaries below may be shorter.)

Toward a History of Trashmaking:
Here Strasser introduces the basic elements of her argument (see above), using anthropologists Mary Douglas, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Sidney Mintz.

One: The Stewardship of Objects:
Nineteenth-century uses of old clothing, food waste, worn-out sheets, and packaging material, as recommended by household advice manuals such as Catherine Beecher's.

Two: Any Rags, Any Bones:
Nineteenth-century "recycling" practices facilitated the "return of household wastes to manufacturers for use as raw materials" and were "inherent to production in some industries, central to the distribution of consumer goods, and an important habit of daily life" (72). Using the example of the rag industry, which gathered rags from householders to make paper, Strasser shows how one type of waste that we would now call "trash" formed a link in the early industrial economy. She also describes the relationships between rural households and peddlers, who would gather their rags in return for goods, and talks about the "recycling" trades in iron and bones.

Jacob Riis, Home of an Italian Ragpicker (1894): Ragpickers in the cities, especially when juvenile, were considered dangerous and corrupt (Strasser cites Charles Loring Brace on child ragpickers as an example).

Three: Trash and Reuse Transformed:
During the transition period at the turn of the century between a culture of bricolage and one of consumerism, "new ways coexisted with old": people in the cities and those with money adopted packaged goods before poor country cousins; young people changed habits before old. Some cities began to take charge of refuse disposal, and with this separation came new class anxieties: middle-class people who were horrified by the idea of being "like" Riis' "Italian ragpickers" "learned to toss things in the trash" instead of reusing (113). Meanwhile, the Salvation Army and Goodwill began to take advantage of the new trends, offering to take the job of reusing trash off the hands of the individual householders (and do some good in the meantime). The first World War momentarily reversed upward trends in disposal, but the curve resumed at the cessation of hostilities.

Rather than being a radical requirement, Strasser argues, recycling is just a new version of the old "sorting" that people used to do with household waste.

Four: Having and Disposing in the New Consumer Culture:
Strasser uses the evolution of the use of Kotex disposal "sanitary napkins" as an example of what advertisers had to deal with when attempting to persuade people to abandon old ways of reuse (she cites Roland Marchand's idea of the advertising man as the "town crier" of modernity). In the 1920s, she writes, attitudes attendant to the development of products such as Kotex "equated handy new inventions with ease and prosperity" (170). "Cleanliness" was a major selling point for paper products, and the idea of "technological obsolesence" came into play as part of a new "ethos of disposability" (173). Convenience in household products came associated with freedom and assurance - "an amalgam of luxury, comfort, and emancipation from worry" (184). Often, household products were advertised as being like "servants", harkening back to 19th-century ideals of genteel householdery.

Five: Making Do and Buying New in Hard Times:
Depression-era attitudes toward disposal and consumerism were altered, but Strasser argues that although people tried to cut down on their buying, they were still inextricably intertwined in a culture of consumption: "few people made soap anymore; most bought clothing, and sewing was becoming a hobby...when hard times came, most younger people, at least, were thoroughly consumerist. Their versions of 'making do'...were framed by consumer concerns and consumer possibilities" (204). Two major consumer items - autos and refrigerators - even ceased being considered luxuries during this time period. (This chapter also cites several quilt patterns incorporating technological themes, like airplanes and electric fans...p 218.)

Six: Use It Up! Wear It Out! Get in the Scrap!:
WWII-era scrap drives, though often considered exemplars of patriotic recycling, were actually, Strasser argues, not so much of a sacrifice for homeowners, and the industrial donations were actually far more cost-effective. Although some homefront rhetorics emphasized sacrifice, they also promised that when the war was over, good ol' consumer days would return again (as they did!) Roosevelt's Four Freedoms included "Freedom from Want", which promised that after the war, everybody would have a turkey in a refrigerator. Meanwhile, women's household activities were seen as another "front" in the war - by participating in scrap drives and rationing, women could be seen to be "supporting" their soldiers.

The awesome movie "Idiocracy" (2006), in which one of the signs of societal collapse is that humans are regularly buried in huge trash avalanches.

Seven: Good Riddance:
Strasser wraps up the book with perhaps the most familiar part of the story: the expansion of waste in the postwar era. "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...nobody made plastic at home, hardly anybody understood how it was made, and it usually could not be repaired" (267). Strasser sees Vance Packard's The Waste Makers (1960) as a harbinger of the environmental movement, one of the first social critiques of the waste culture. She ends the book with a discussion of "garbage" art (see below) and some ideas for future change in how Americans see waste: "We are not likely to revive the stewardship of objects and materials, formed in a bygone culture of handiwork. 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" (293). Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the unsalaried "artist in residence" of the NYC sanitation department, in one phase of her "Touch Sanitation" project (1978-80), which involved shaking hands with every member of the department.

In Technology and Culture, JD Lindeberg wrote that while it's interesting to think about changing attitudes toward personal waste, industrial waste continues to outpace household waste at huge margins. Thus, he wrote, Strasser's analysis would appeal to both academics and those in the political world with the power to shift policy and therefore industrial practice: "Academics may focus on the detailed analyses of changing sociocultural attitudes toward waste. But professionals and policymakers will be struck by how current behaviors are clearly the outcome of the economic policies of the middle twentieth century. Successfully creating change in those behaviors will require economic policies no less profound in their effects." In the Business History Review, Timothy Spears particularly liked Strasser's discussion of bricolage, but wishes she'd extended it beyond the world of women's work into the more masculine realms (mending farm equipment, etc).

Vocab words:

Books to follow up on:
Primary: Kevin Lynch, Wasting Away: An Exploration of Waste—What It Is, How It Happens, Why We Fear It, How to Do It Well (1990); Mary Lillian Patterson, How to Teach Thrift: A Manual for Teachers and Parents (1927).

Secondary: Jane Becker, Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 (1998); Simon J. Bronner, ed., Consuming Visions: Accumulation and Display of Goods in America, 1880-1920 (1989); Faye Dudden, Serving Women: Household Service in Nineteenth-Century America (1983); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988); Stephen Gelber, "Do-it-Yourself: Constructing, Repairing, and Maintaining Domestic Masculinity", American Quarterly 49 (March 1997); Robert H. Haddow, Pavilions of Plenty: Exhibiting American Cultulre Abroad in the 1950s (1997); Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (1995); Claudia B Kidwell and Margaret C Christman, Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America (1974); Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s (1994); Carl Husemoller Nightingale, On The Edge: A History of Poor Black Children and Their American Dreams (1993); Michiel Schwarz and Michael Thompson, Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology, and Social Choice (1990); Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (1979); Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (1998); William Tuttle, "Daddy's Gone to War": The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children (1993).

Trash art by German artist H.A. Schult (late 90s) gets displayed in traditionally exalted locales, such as this cathedral in Cologne, the Matterhorn, and the Great Wall of China.

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