Another figure on the London streets was the dustman. We still have refuse collectors today, of course—but unlike those of old London, they don't pay for the honor. And while the U.S. seems to be slowly catching on to recycling, we have a ways to go before we get to the Absolutely-Nothing-Wasted approach of our ancestors.
The 17th century’s dire bouts of plague led London in 1670 to set up a “regular body of scavengers, and dustmen, the former to sweep the open streets, and cart away the filth, and stagnant dirt; and the latter, to collect from door to door such waste materials as composed the dunghills.”
Originally, these contractors were paid for their work. Before long, though, the commissioners saw their error: “Time has brought to light, that industry, aided by experiment, can turn everything to advantage, and that rubbish and filth, the former pests of the city, are now become a source of utility and wealth. The people who perform the duties of scavenger, and dustman, now pay a sum of money for the contract, and for being allowed the exclusive privilege of carting away the rubbish.
“Amongst other advantages which the public experience from this custom, must be mentioned, that it furnishes the means of an honest livelihood for a great number of men and women, of the lowest order, who are employed in separating the different materials, which are heaped together upon the dust hills. The sea-coal cinders are picked out and sifted; the largest are sold to the brick-makers to burn in their kilns; the siftings are used as a manure. The rags are picked out and sorted for making various sorts of paper. The bones are reserved for making ivory black, and various other purposes; and the residue of the rubbish is used for manure, for mending the roads, or is applied to some useful occasion.”
Excerpts and illustration are from the hard-to-find Pyne’s British Costume, originally published in 1805 as The Costume of Great Britain.
If you have any doubts about the business’s profitability, look into Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which a dustman and his dust heaps play leading roles.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.