Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A researcher aims to uncover what nineteenth-century garbage says about historical—and contemporary—waste.
For Tom Licence, nettles mark the spot. They bristle up out of salt marshes, the clusters suggesting that treasure might be concealed below the dirt.
Licence digs at the topsoil with a spade. He reaches a layer of grainy cinders and ash, then sand or clay, serving as a sealant for what’s beneath. He pulls on thick gloves and feels around for shards of shattered glass or splintered crockery. The pit might be just a few inches below the grass, or some ten feet deep. But eventually, the ground turns up dirt-chocked objects tucked below its surface. And that’s when the real fun starts.
Licence, a lecturer in medieval history at the University of East Anglia and the author of the book and blog What the Victorians Threw Away, is a garbologist. He systematically unearths and studies domestic detritus in order to figure out what nineteenth-century habits have to say about what consumers bought and threw away. But more than that, he says, the habits help us understand what people valued, both materially and culturally.
Rooting around in personal trash dumps allows Licence to excavate a narrative about a specific family. “If you dig up a little rubbish dump at the bottom of someone’s garden, you know you’re only going to find what that particular household threw away,” he says. “In the larger dumps, it’s anonymous.” By digging up part of a doll’s porcelain face, or a medicine bottle, he can imagine how daughters spent their days, or what ailments afflicted the patriarch. “You can work out what sorts of illnesses they had, what sorts of luxuries they enjoyed,” he tells CityLab. “You can match the objects to the people.”
Sometimes he finds generic, commonplace items: thimbles, fragments of a chamber pot, or a flap of leather from an orphaned shoe. But Licence hopes to exhume artifacts he can stitch together into a portrait of someone’s life. “If a private detective wanted to find out information about someone, he’d probably go through their trash and try to work out clues,” he says. For instance, an out-of-place cup from a catering company 40 miles from a dig site tipped Licence off to the notion that the homeowner had a reputation for throwing lavish garden parties. (When it comes to this deductive work, anything emblazoned with letters, dates, or an insignia is a goldmine.)
In the book, Licence focuses on three sites. In sum, they offer snapshots of three distinct social classes and parts of England: a post office in Shropshire, a rectory in Norfolk, and laborers’ cottages in Kent.
The garbage in the three sites spans a period of nearly 50 years, mapping onto a cultural shift in how families related to consumption and disposal. “In the Victorian period, up until the very end of the 1880s or 1890s, people threw away things only when they were broken,” Licence explains. Contemporary homemaking guides, such as Household Hints, espoused the widespread belief that jam jars and medicine bottles would be rinsed out and used again. The notion of something being used up—of designed obsolescence—came into play during the twentieth century. That’s when boredom, or the loss of shiny newness, became a justification for pitching something into the garbage.
Over time, Licence adds, manufacturers began to design their products with the brief lifecycle in mind. In Kent, for instance, he disinterred sauce bottles with necks too narrow to refill—a precursor, perhaps, to our current culture of single-serving foods that quickly go from shelf, to table, to garbage. “You see a snowballing effect,” Licence points out. “Once purveyors caught on to the idea that things can be disposable, they used it more and more.”
In the current cultural moment, nearly everything is disposable—so much so that food waste and e-waste are full-blown crises on a global scale. But Licence is quick to point out that this behavior isn’t so deeply embedded; it’s not built into our DNA. The habit of pitching out things we’re tired of is only a little more than 100 years old. Even if it’s not tangled up in our psyche, he concedes, disposability does “appeal to our tendency to make our lives easier, and anything that appeals to that tendency will be hard to shake.”