WASTE AND WANT by Susan Strasser


A Social History of Trash
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—By their trash shall you know them” is the theme of this research-driven exploration of the rubbish and refuse habits of more than two centuries of Americans. “Rubbish took on new meanings” in the vast transition between the preindustrial society of the 18th century and the consumer culture of the 20th, says Strasser (Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market, 1989). She not only sorts what was trash in the 19th century, but tracks how and why what is defined as garbage expanded from a few shards of broken crockery buried in the backyard to landfills full of computers and disposable diapers. Described in detail are thrifty habits of 19th-century families, who refashioned worn or used objects of every description from broken bottles (could be made into funnels and bowls) to tired party dresses. If objects like rags and bones couldn’t be reused in the home, they were sold to itinerant peddlers to be recycled into paper and buttons. Children scavenged back alleys to find castoffs, especially scrap metal, that could be sold for a few pennies. At the turn of the century, increasing class differences, the growth of manufacturing, new concern with sanitation, and the entrance of women into the marketplace with no time to refurbish worn clothing brought upheaval to trash culture. Further changes are tracked through WWI, the Depression, and WWII, when recycling fat, metal, rubber, and paper became a patriotic duty. A wave of consumerism followed WWII, and the current wave of recycling is an offshoot of the countercultural 1960s, says Strasser. Although concerned about the continuing large volume of refuse generated now, Strasser is heartened that sorting trash for disposal has been revived, this time as a moral act and not a pecuniary one. Rummaging through the trash barrel of history has unearthed some choice, if occasionally dry, morsels of 20th-century culture. (b&w photos)

Pub Date: Sept. 14th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-4830-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


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