Histories of Waste

Creators
John Robert Moore and Nathan Franklin

Transcript
In what now are called old times, sailors would gage how close they were to the city by smell. Even six-miles out, the rank effluviums of filth and squalor–the redolent-birthmark of developing New York–greeted green-horned immigrants with savage immediacy. The air in the land of opportunity was fixed. Unprecedented population density had given birth to a public health quagmire: the lack of proper sanitation. It had made 19th century New York a literal, festering wound with a death rate akin to medieval Europe.

In David Thomas Valentine’s Manuel of Old New York the scene was glibly described as “orderly chaos” a kind of backhanded compliment to the newly arrived to whom piles of rancid debris crippled the simplest of navigation for the city’s lower end. Horses alone were responsible for producing 40,000 gallons of feces in Manhattan and Brooklyn per day and upon winter’s arrival, the defecated heaps would frost-over, creating protruding walls of feculence as high reaching as forty to sixty feet. Coupled with the lack of clean, potable water the manure became peerless host and vector for many maladies, including cholera. When and if finances were sound, a shovel-wielding citizen (usually a child) could be paid to clear a path for those heading out to market as, even by the 1860s, no public municipal service for waste existed. Except of course, pigs.

“Take care of the pigs,” Dickens would advise settlers in his American Notes of 1842, for these “gentlemen-hogs” were more than simple street vignettes. In dense populations, the swine rampantly roamed through lower Manhattan ingesting swales of refuse containing scraps of food, ash, cloth, metal and bone. Whatever the hog’s cunning couldn’t allow it to squander was scavenged by haberdasher citizens. Whole neighborhoods such as “Bottle Alley” & “Ragpicker’s Row” began to be nicknamed for the deposits of waste they were known to discard. Ethnic enclaves began to form based out industries of waste collecting. Italian men were known to take part in the profession of “scow trimming” the tiring act of sorting valuables from trash before putting it on square ended vessels to eventually be brought out to sea.

Nevertheless near the turn of the century, New Yorker’s found a salubrious resolution to their issues with waste management through the appointment of George E. Waring Jr. as Commissioner of Street Cleaning. A former Civil War colonel known for his swashbuckling attitude of persistence, Waring created a big stir when he dressed his employees in clean-pressed, white uniforms. Starkly contrasting with their work environment, the “White Wings” became their epithet, as they marched down Broadway, taking an entrepreneurial approach to waste collection and management.

And then somewhat unexpectedly, the city became clean. Ash gave way to roads as even newer technologies for waste disposal were implemented. The ephemeral clues to unlocking the history of old New York began to vanish. Through the installment of first permanent incinerator on Governor’s Island in 1885, the personality of old New York began to be relinquished. The archeology of what was once considered trash is rather strangely, the history we seek. We are digging through all that in which we can no longer smell.

Bibliography and credits
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