Saturday, 24 December 2011

The dust-heap of history

The Great Dust Heap, Kings Cross
EH Dixon, watercolour, 1837. Wellcome Library.
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License

From Mark Liberman at Language Log: The what of history?, an interesting analysis of US and UK variants on the "dustbin of history", to which defunct institutions are rhetorically consigned.

The context is kind of interesting, in that the British terms dustbin" (a domestic refuse bin), "dustman" (a refuse collector) and "dustcart" (a refuse collection vehicle) - the latter two folksy names persist despite decades of rebranding - preserve an archaic meaning of "dust", meaning "refuse". It's not merely a euphemism; as indicated by the largely archaic warning embossed on plastic dustbins - "no hot ashes" - domestic refuse consisted, historically, in large part of dust: ashes and cinders from the fire (see Bins and the history of waste relations). Dustbins are a relatively recent invention - early 1900s - and mid-Victorian houses had a room, a "dusthole", where ashes and refuse were stored (see p111, Magazine of Domestic Economy, 1837) and whose contents were regularly carted away to the local dust-heap.

The dust-heap was the scene of, by modern standards, heroic recycling.

A Dust-heap of this kind is often worth thousands of pounds. The present one was very large and very valuable. It was in fact a large hill, and being in the vicinity of small suburb cottages, it rose above them like a great black mountain. Thistles, groundsel, and rank grass grew in knots on small parts which had remained for a long time undisturbed; crows often alighted on its top, and seemed to put on their spectacles and become very busy and serious; flocks of sparrows often made predatory descents upon it; an old goose and gander might sometimes he seen following each other up its side, nearly midway; pigs rooted around its base,--and now and then, one bolder than the rest would venture some way up, attracted by the mixed odors of some hidden marrow-bone enveloped in a decayed cabbage-leaf--a rare event, both of these articles being unusual oversights of the Searchers below.

The principal ingredient of all these Dust-heaps is fine cinders and ashes; but as they are accumulated from the contents of all the dust-holes and bins of the vicinity, and as many more as possible, the fresh arrivals in their original state present very heterogeneous materials. We cannot better describe them than by presenting a brief sketch of the different departments of the Searchers and Sorters, who are assembled below to busy themselves upon the mass of original matters which are shot out from the carts of the dustmen.

The bits of coal, the pretty numerous results of accident and servants' carelessness, are picked out, to be sold forthwith; the largest and best of the cinders are also selected, by another party, who sell them to laundresses, or to braziers (for whose purposes coke would do as well;) and the next sort of cinders, called the breeze, because it is left after the wind has blown the finer cinders through an upright sieve, is sold to the brick-makers.

Two other departments, called the "soft-ware" and the "hard-ware," are very important. The former includes all vegetable and animal matters--everything that will decompose. These are selected and bagged at once, and carried off as soon as possible, to be sold as manure for plowed land, wheat, barley, &c. Under this head, also, the dead cats are comprised. They are generally the perquisites of the women searchers. Dealers come to the wharf, or dust-field, every evening; they give sixpence for a white cat, fourpence for a colored cat, and for a black one according to her quality. The "hard-ware" includes all broken pottery pans, crockery, earthenware, oyster-shells, &c., which are sold to make new roads.

The bones are selected with care, and sold to the soap-boiler. He boils out the fat and marrow first, for special use, and the bones are then crushed and sold for manure.

Of rags, the woollen rags are bagged and sent off for hop-manure; the white linen rags are washed, and sold to make paper, &c.

The "tin things" are collected and put into an oven with a grating at the bottom, so that the solder which unites the parts melts, and runs through into a receiver. This is sold separately; the detached pieces of tin are then sold to be melted up with old iron, &c.

Bits of old brass, lead, &c., are sold to be molted up separately, or in the mixture of ores.

All broken glass vessels, as cruets, mustard-pots, tumblers, wine-glasses, bottles, &c., are sold to the old-glass shops.

As for any articles of jewelry, silver spoons, forks, thimbles, or other plate and valuables, they are pocketed off-hand by the first finder. Coins of gold and silver are often found, and many "coppers."

Meantime, everybody is hard at work near the base of the great Dust-heap. A certain number of cart-loads having been raked and searched for all the different things just described, the whole of it now undergoes the process of sifting. The men throw up the stuff, and the women sift it.

- Dust: or Ugliness Redeemed, pp379-384, Household Words, A Weekly Journal, conducted by Charles Dickens,  No. 16, July 13, 1850.

Of the Dustmen of London, in Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2, gives a similar account. It recalls the rag-pickers of Dharavi; a striking example of how Victorian London resembled a modern Third World megalopolis. The Household Words article is uncredited, but it's very likely by Dickens himself, as it strongly recalls a central theme of his 1864 Our Mutual Friend, in which Nicodemus Boffin has acquired the nickname The Golden Dustman because he has inherited a fortune acquired from dust.

'The man,' Mortimer goes on, addressing Eugene, 'whose name is Harmon, was only son of a tremendous old rascal who made his money by Dust.'

'Red velveteens and a bell?' the gloomy Eugene inquires.

'And a ladder and basket if you like. By which means, or by others, he grew rich as a Dust Contractor, and lived in a hollow in a hilly country entirely composed of Dust. On his own small estate the growling old vagabond threw up his own mountain range, like an old volcano, and its geological formation was Dust. Coal-dust, vegetable-dust, bone-dust, crockery dust, rough dust and sifted dust,—all manner of Dust.'

An article in the Eclectic Review, 1865 - Mr Dickens's Romance of a Dust Heap, a review of Our Mutual Friend - noted the connection, mentioning another account.

... Mr Dickens has now, to our knowledge, for sixteen years been haunted by a great Dust-heap.
Following Mr Dickens's observant eye and rapid foot, other visitors have traversed and circumambulated these extraordinary mounds. In that excellent and arousing little book, The Missing Link, there is a chapter entitled 'The Bible Woman among the Dustheaps;' and many facts recited in that interesting little chapter go to confirm the more imaginative settings of the great social novelist.

Sorting a dust-heap at a County Council depot
from London's Toilet, PF William Ryan, in Living London, George Robert Sims, 1902
As Dickens described, the owners of commercial dust-heaps could become very wealthy, and occasionally even the workers made a good living, since a perk of the job was being allowed to keep any high-value items they found. For the majority, however, it was a disgusting drudge.

Despite the grim reality, at least two poets managed to find enlightening metaphorical symbolism in dust-heaps. In 1851, George Washington Dewey wrote in Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art:

The dust-heap has a poetry — a hieroglyphic art,
An eloquence as sacred as the Pyramids impart!
The relics which are gathered from the hot and noisy way,
Are laden with the memories of many a summer day.
Familiar objects catch your eye among the rubbish there;
You recognize some fragments of your boyhood's " wear and tear " —
Some buckle, strap, or button — or bobbin apron string.
Which held you in the leash of home, ere youth had taken wing!
There is no fancy striving for a counterfeit of truth —
The dust-heap on the common was the crucible of youth!
And Time is yet the Alchymist all metals to assay; —
Then be thine age the purer — for the dross shall melt away.

And in 1863 Alfred Saxelby West, in his anthology Poems of an Interval, wrote Lines on a Dust-Heap, which found uplighting symbolism about mortality in the not infrequent possibility of finding something of value in a dust-heap.

Yea, e'en the naked dust is nature's child,
And not to be accounted dross ; she rears it
For future form, a fair and pleasing thing.
And am not I — nay, are we not all dust?
And shall we not be so again ere long?
But does no treasure mingle with the mass?
Aye ! One shall find, and snatch the shining jewel
From out the putrid heap, to deck His realms,
To stud heaven's fields with spangled treasures fair;
Poor dust below, but shining dew-drops there!

For further reading: Dusty Bob: a cultural history of dustmen, 1780-1870 (Brian Maidment, Manchester University Press, 2007) looks worth finding:

Why did dustmen exercise an extended hold over the imagination of many Regency and Victorian artists and writers, including George Cruikshank, Henry Mayhew, Charles Dickens as well as numerous little known dramatists, caricaturists, print makers, journalists and novelists? This book, the first study of the cultural representation of the dust trade, provides many varied answers to this question by showing the ways in which London dustmen were associated with ideas of contamination, dirt, noise, violence, wealth, consumerism and threat. Drawing on an extraordinary range of sources, including plays, novels, reportage and, especially, visual culture, Dusty Bob describes the ways in which dustmen were perceived and mythologized in the first seventy years of the nineteenth century.

See also the previous post John Petty: The Face, which looks at the autobiography of a modern scavenger.

- Ray


  1. Thanks. I now understand why we call them "breeze blocks" and Americans call them "cinder blocks". I wonder if they still use cinders.

    (BTW, while I'm here, is there any chance you could set blogger to show the entire post in the RSS feed, rather than just the first couple of paragraphs? Would make it a lot easier to read on my smartphone).

  2. Very interesting, as always, Ray. Merry Christmas! Of course "dust man" is much more poetic than the "trash man" we use here in the colonies. And, I dare say our garbage heaps would yield infinitely more variety since we barely recycle. But the best of the above was the "hardware" and "software." Babbage would be proud.