Trash in the past
Lessons learned from days gone by
January 16, 2020
Burn it, bury it or dump it. Or let the pigs eat it. Those used to be the options for refuse disposal at the turn of the last century. It wasn’t until 1896 that New York City required residents to separate household waste, food waste in one tin, ash in another, and dry trash in a bag or bundle. Back then it was estimated that each American produced 80-100 pounds of food waste, 50-100 pounds of rubbish, and 300-12000 pounds of wood or coal ash.
Small and medium sized towns built piggeries where swine were fed fresh or cooked garbage. One expert estimated that 75 pigs can eat one ton of refuse per day.
By 1910, some 80 percent of American cities had regular trash collection. Recycling or scavenging was an essential part of the rubbish disposal process. Rag pickers recycled old clothing or fabric which was used to make newsprint.
Smaller towns did have dumps, although oftentimes residents would still bury trash in their yards, as James Payne, Executive Director of the Fort Walla Walla Museum noted.
“At the Fort Walla Walla site, even though there was a large organized dump site located several hundred yards away from the residences, in some cases we see that a corporal or sergeant chose to dig a garbage pit right in their yard,” Payne said.
Payne also praised those old garbage dump sites as rich sources of information about prior inhabitants of a community.
“For an archeologist, a trash deposit is gold. We are not seeking artifacts, necessarily, but information. A trash deposit in many cases is like a time capsule. The deposits may be of different sizes, may have been used for different durations. For an archeologist a shorter duration reveals more information.”
At a privy excavation on the Fort Walla Walla site that had been located near the guard shack for the prison, they found a lot of booze bottles. This led him to wonder “Why are they disposing of it in that manner? Well, you weren’t supposed to be drinking on the job, so perhaps they hid the evidence by throwing it in the privy?” he said.
One interesting site that he has returned to over the years is underneath the parking lot of Walla Walla’s Town Hall. They found remnants of the town dump, but underneath that, they also uncovered a 2,000- year-old archeological site, with items from hunter/gatherers, or what’s known as a multi-component site. “If it’s a good place to camp, it’s likely that multiple people have used it over history.”
Besides feeding food scraps to pigs or chickens or burning trash in a burn pile or burn barrel, people would also add garbage to the manure pile. This garbage, be it broken pieces of pottery, or old bottles would then be spread over the fields, which make for interesting current day discoveries.
Truly an enthusiast about this topic, Payne, when asked to describe his favorite item from his trash dump digging described a yellow clay pitcher with a brown speckled glaze with a figure of a high-relief cherub on it. He was able to locate a complete example of this Rockingham pottery online, learning that it was created in Vermont and was a very popular style in the 1840’s and 1850’s.
And while Payne has also uncovered trash that included pieces of trolleys and old-fashioned batteries from the Walla Walla electric trolley station, and medical utensils near a dump by the original Fort hospital, what he doesn’t find in any of these locations is of course, plastic.
This common day substance is tied to many hazards to people, animals and our planet. As the saying goes, ‘plastic is forever,’ it cannot biodegrade, and toxic chemicals leach out of it and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all of us. Exposure to these chemicals are linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and other ailments, and yet 33 percent of all plastics are used just once.
In the past, rural people could dispose of their waste in more organic ways, utilizing animals and landfills to break down trash. With the invention of plastics and other modern day materials we must look for safer methods to handle these long lasting and environmentally dangerous materials.
In the next article in this series, we will take a look at ways local people are reducing or even eliminating their waste, and their reasons for doing so, including a commitment to reducing their use of plastics..