Friday, January 17, 2014

The Rag and Bone Man Cometh

I don't know about you, but I never have enough rags for housecleaning.  I am very kind on my clothes, and those I do outgrow, I generally give away.  But in nineteenth century England, another sort of person craved rags and sundry materials:  the rag and bone man.

Rag and bone men wandered the city streets looking for any refuse they might turn to a profit.  In some neighborhoods, they would walk along with a sack on their backs or perhaps with a horse and cart, calling "Rags!  Bones!  Bottles!"  Anyone who had something to give away or sell would come out and hand the material to him.  As many as 1,000 rag and bone men worked in mid nineteenth-century London alone.

In poorer neighborhoods, rag and bone men gave children incentives such as goldfish, rubbing stones, and poor-quality China cups to bring out materials.  In wealthier neighborhoods, it was often the servants who traded, bringing out their mistress's cast-off clothing or the drippings from the household meals.  Extra income from selling such items was the perk of the lady's maid and cook.

What did the rag and bone men do with their odd treasures?  Paper at the time was made from linen and rag, so any material of that sort went to the paper manufacturers either directly or through a trader.  Clothing in good condition could be sold second-hand at shops or fairs.  Bones were ground up for fertilizer or made into glue if broken; if whole, they could be used to decorate a variety of household items such as the handles of hunting knives.  Marrow could be used for making soap. Any metal could be sold for reuse as nails or ornaments.

Even given all these possibilities, the trade wasn't lucrative.  One estimate put the income of a rag and bone man at six pence per day, less than $2.00 a day at today's prices.

Perhaps I should be more generous with my rags after all!


J.Grace said...

Very interesting post, seems like reuse and recycling have been around for a long time :)

QNPoohBear said...

Bones were used to make china weren't they? That's the story I've heard anyway.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, J. Grace! Yes, I've seen mention of the rag and bone men specifically connected with "Victorian recycling" but they were around before Victoria. :-)

And QNPoohBear, you are correct! I knew I forgot something! Yes, bones were used to make china too. Most likely that's where we get the phrase bone china. :-)

QNPoohBear said...

One of my professors did mention that's where bone china comes from. We discussed rag (linen) paper a lot. It lasts forever. Nerd alert: In Bath I got to look at a Georgian era record book for the Royal Mineral Water Hospital and very very old books in the Winchester Cathedral Scriptorium.

Regina Scott said...

Ooh, how cool, QNPoohBear! There's something heady about touching old books, like you've put your finger on a page of history.