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UD professor’s book details social history of trash

NEWARK, DE.--You’ll never think of refuse in quite the same way once you’ve read Susan Strasser’s latest book, "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash," published by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt. Even if you’ve never wondered how society has evolved from one in which almost everything was used and reused to one where even computers are thought to be disposable, you’ll start to ponder such questions. As Carolyn Allessio wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "The only problem with ‘Waste and Want’ is figuring out what to do with the book once you’re finished reading it."

Strasser, a professor of history at the University of Delaware, says this latest work is a natural outgrowth of her previous books that look at American domestic life and consumer culture. "Never Done," her first work, discusses the history of housework and the changing role of American women. Her second, "Satisfaction Guaranteed," traces the development of the mass market for consumer products through the evolution of such brand’s as Crisco, Jell-O and Kellogg’s.

"I was writing and researching my second book in the 1980s when we had the Chernobyl crisis and the garbage barge Mobro roamed the Atlantic for two months searching for a dumping place. Increasingly, I came to feel I needed to deal with the environmental effects this consumerism I was writing about had created," Strasser says.

The book, written for both academic and popular markets, has been a resounding success. It has been discussed on "All Things Considered" and in web chat rooms, been the focus of a lecture on C-SPAN and been reviewed favorably in The New York Times, The Washington Post and many other venues.

"Trash is created by sorting. Everything that comes into the…home—every toaster, pair of trousers and ounce of soda pop, and every box and bag and bottle they arrive in—eventually requires a decision: keep it or toss it," Strasser writes in her book. "We use it up, we save it to use later, we give it away or at some point we define it as rubbish to be taken back out, removed beyond the borders of the household. As everyday life and ordinary housework have changed over time, so has this process of defining what is rubbish, as well as the rubbish itself, the contents of trash."

The concept of disposability was foreign in early America, Strasser says, noting in her book the excavation of an early Virginia plantation in the 1970s. A volunteer archaeologist unearthed fragments of a stoneware bottleneck, buried since the 1620s, that perfectly matched the bottom of a large jug in the plantation’s museum, although the two were dug from different sites. While some theorized that the jug had exploded in mid-air it’s halves falling far from each other, a more likely explanation, Strasser writes, is that because early colonists didn’t have many things, when the original bottle broke, it’s bottom was put into service as a bowl and the top used as a funnel.

Such stewardship of objects is almost unheard of today, she says.

Also lost is the diligence with which possessions were cared for and the elaborate repair processes a broken item was likely to undergo.

"Combs made from tortoiseshell lasted longer if rubbed with oil from time to time, wooden pails and tubs were said to shrink less if first saturated with glycerin," she writes.

"Hand-sewn clothes were extremely valuable; the plainest cotton shirt took a good seamstress half a day, while one with more complicated styling took a day or two. Wardrobes were small; only the wealthy had more than a few changes of clothing for each season and many people had one change or none at all.

"Repairing garments and linens often went far beyond mending to ‘making over"—simple hemming, dyeing or treating worn fabrics, covering frayed cuffs and collars with handmade needlework or completely disassembling a garment and using the pieces for some other purpose.

"Even wealthy women would send their gowns back to Paris to be remade rather than buy new," Strasser said.

Foodscraps were reused with regularity in early America, Strasser notes, quoting an 1835 edition of "The American Frugal Housewife" which reminds women to check their slop pails—which held pig feed—"to see that nothing is thrown to the pigs which should have been in the grease-pot." The grease pot, in turn, was where fats were saved for cooking and soap making. The same article advised women to "look into the grease-pot and see that nothing is there which might have served to nourish your own family or a poorer one."
Peddlers, who not only brought new goods door to door but took old items like rags and bones away, also played an important role in refuse removal in early America," Strasser says.

An advertisement quoted in the book from a small New York paper mill, urged women to trade their rags for the peddler’s goods by saying:

"The scraps, which you reject unfit

To clothe the tenant of a hovel,

May shine in sentiment and wit

And help to make a charming novel."

A real shift in American’s view of trash took place from 1885-1929 when marketing systems were developed for new lines of products aimed at making housework easier, Strasser says. Suddenly mass production and mass distribution of products were affecting people’s private lives.

Later, in the 1920s when fashion started extendingo into all sorts of products, consumers saw even more need to change styles and stay up to date.

"For example, until the 1920s towels were white. Then colored towels came in and were very expensive—only the wealthy bought them, except, perhaps, as wedding presents. They didn’t become commonplace until after World War II," Strasser says.

Cars, also, were originally marketed in one color and style. "Although Henry Ford vehemently opposed changing styles and colors and thought cars should be reconditioned instead of traded in, by the 1920s General Motors, which did offer yearly model changes, surpassed Ford in sales and the company had to capitulate," Strasser says.

Add technological change to fashion and it’s easy to see how consumers began to think of goods as outdated. "In the 1920s, radios changed as dramatically as computers are changing for us. Everyone wanted next year’s model," Strasser says.

Such a shift in thinking has created "economic growth fueled by waste—trash created by packaging and the constant technological and stylistic change that has made ‘perfectly good’ objects obsolete and created markets for replacement," she writes.

"Marketing produced its own ephemera: boxes and cartons, newspapers and magazines thick with ads, mail-order catalogs, showcards created for temporary window displays—all designed to be used briefly and then thrown away," she writes.

The book also traces the evolution of paper products created and marketed with the idea of making society healthier—the replacement of a common drinking cup on trains with paper cups and the development of paper straws, plates, napkins and Kleenex. As hard as it is to imagine, Kleenex consumption was still less than one box per household per year in 1940, she says.

Today even plastic garbage bags come scented and in colors designed to coordinate with kitchens.

"They epitomize the contemporary attitude about trash—a far cry from the homemade soap, darned stocking, turned sheets and warehouses full of bones in days gone by," Strasser says.

The book concludes with a look at how garbage disposals and the big business of trash collection and landfill operations have changed the way people get refuse out of the house. It also touches on recycling and how it was promoted by the countercultures of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

"We are not likely to revive the stewardship of objects and materials formed in a bygone culture of handwork. 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," Strasser concludes.

Strasser has been at UD since the fall of 1999. She earned her doctorate in history from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1977.

Contact: Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749, bethomas@udel.edu; or
March 8, 2000

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