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Waste and Want

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Susan StrasserEdit

Susan Strasser is Richards Chaired Professor in History at the University of Delaware, and affiliated with the Center for Material Culture Studies. She received her Ph.D. at Stony Brook University, working under Ruth Schwartz Cowen. Her dissertation was turned into the book Never Done, and has strong ties to Cowen's famous work More Work for Mother.

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash [1999]Edit

A wonderfully detailed book on the history of trash in the United States. Strasser's work does an excellent job of historicizing what we oftent think of as purely contemporary phenomenon--recycling. Strasser directs our gaze to the practices of re-use, re-purposing, and re-sale that were applied to all household objects. The home existed as part of a reciprical relationship with the products of its use; quite literally nothing was sent to waste, as clothes could be mended, patched, darned, processed down or eventually turned into rags and made into quilts, or sold to peddlers who sustained the paper-making industry. Likewise, any other excess objects could either be burned or turned into the soil (including bones and kitchen waste) and ash and charcoal had numerous filtering or purification uses. Early housewives were experts at material bricolage.

Strasser examines the function of peddlers in the 18th and 19th century, amending interpretations of them that situate the peddler as a emissary of early capitalism. Rather, the peddler was part of a two-way process that involved selling manufactored goods but also gathering and bartering in raw materials like rags, bones, etc. It isn't until the growth of wholesale businesses, that garner the detritus of industrial (rather than domestic) waste, that product acquisition became seperated from re-use practices. During the late 19th century, we see the home slowly become purely a receiver of goods and a producer of trash, as practices of sorting and resource allocation get turned over to municipalities or the extremely poor. It was cities that first dealt with the public hazard of waste removal, as sanitary reform pushed for cities to make waste removal their province. Practices of dumping industrial waste in streams, and throwing domestic waste in the ocean or burning or burying it were common. Charity institutions centralized what had long been a practice of door to door begging.

It is only in the contemporary, 20th century that we see the phenomenon of goods constructed to be thrown away. This mirrors the transition from customers to consumers in which Americans were "buying and using mass-produced goods as participants in a complex network of distribution that promoted individuals' relationships with big, centrally organized, national-level companies" (171). These early 20th century americans had to learn "the throw away habit". The 1920s and 30s mark the rise of paper disposeables--cups, toilet paper, napkins, etc. Christine Frederick (the Taylorist of home living) advocated consumerism as a mode of efficiency, which created a culture that valued "convenience", which created the concept of freedom from labor (thus throw-aways replaced work). Advertisers and manufactors produced campaigns to encourage consumers to buy new products before old ones were used up, and products became personalized so as to go in (and come out of) fashion. Even though most women could not be so excessive with their spending, they were learning new habits and discovering desire for products financially out of reach. Obsolescence in product design appears for the first time.

In the decades after the war, trashmaking became a pleasure and asset of many products; recycling was for the poor. Plastic was particularly significant in this regard, as no one could repair it or make it. Disposability was a freedom from drudgery and a hallmark of modernity. Indeed, the "freedom" to throw away goods was a distinction between the democratic United States and the communism of the USSR: "Consumer goods were often described as weapons in the Cold War, and consumption became a vehicle in the political and ideological clash of capitalism and communism" (270).

The Mainstreaming of recycling emerged from a counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

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