In preparation for our upcoming exhibit at the museum, I’ve been reading a lot about trash.  Yes, you read that correctly.  The exhibit is called “Green Fields, Black Smoke,” and it’s all about the ways in which people in the 19th century thought about the environment.  We often hear from visitors “People were so much greener back then!”  And we try to say, very sweetly: “Not exactly.”  This exhibit is our way to answer that question a bit more directly–at least for the next several months.

Anyway, I was in the middle of Susan Strasser’s Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash and got to her chapter on junk men and peddlers.  Instantly, I thought of Papa’s junk shop in All-of-a-Kind Family.  As I continued to read, I was amazed to see that she quoted the scene in Famer Boy where Mama bargains with the peddler.

For those that haven’t recently reread those books, I’ll briefly recap the scene.  Alas, my copy of AoAKF is at work so just paraphrases there.

In Farmer Boy, the entire family is absolutely thrilled when Nick Brown arrives with his amazing wagon arrives with lots and lots of shiny tin.  He spend the night, telling stories, and the next day it’s time for business.  Mother brings out rags she’s been saving for a year, and they begin to haggle.  “For a long time they talked and argued.  Shining tinware and piles of rags were all over the porch.  For every pile of rags that Nick Brown added to the big pile, Mother asked more tinware that he wanted to trade her.  They were both having a good time, joking and laughing and trading.” (Farmer Boy, p. 138)

Now here’s what I never understood about that scene, something I didn’t completely understand until reading Strasser’s book.  Why on earth would Nick Brown want that many rags?  Surely, he’s not making quilts.  How is that even a fair trade?  The answer, my friends, is paper.

In the mid-19th century, most paper was made not out of wood pulp, but fiber.  You know the old paper that seems to have held up so well over the last 150 years?  Probably made out of someone’s worn out muslin, linen or cotton.  In the 1860s, when Farmer Boy is set, publishing is really starting to take off, so the demand for good, clean rags was high.  Paper factories even wrote advertising jingles about how the paper you’re writing a love letter on might once have graced the very body of the woman you are writing to.  Eventually, the demand was so high that factories had to turn to other sources for paper, including wood pulp.  But Mother and Nick Brown were at the center of the 19th century recyling circle.

But what about Papa’s junk shop?  All-of-a-Kind Family takes place almost 50 years later, in a very different environment.  Papa runs the hub for peddlers–his storage area is divided into different categories, including paper and metal.  The incident that came to my mind was when a rich man sold books to a peddler–and the girls were able to own their very first books.  The peddlers hang out with Papa and dote on the girls.  They, too, are part of recycling, 19th century style.  However, for these peddlers, it was generally a cash transaction, not bartering like in Farmer Boy.

So what happened?  Why aren’t peddlers still coming to our doors?  Some of the explanation comes from the factories wanting to deal with raw materials and not spend the time and money to reuse things.  Technology just got better.  I’m sure you’ve heard some of the recent reports about with today’s economy, it no longer pays to recycle.  The demand has gotten smaller, but the supply has held steady or increased.

Cities also figured out how to deal with trash.  Trash collection began ocurring regularly around the turn of the century, depending on your location.  If you had to personally deal with disposing of everything, wouldn’t you throw less away?  But if you didn’t have to worry, it’s much easier to toss.

And finally, various charities, such as The Salvation Army, began who collected your cast-off goods–and made you feel good about passing something on.  Thus, the peddlers became extinct. 

Can you think of any other peddlers in children’s literature?

Children’s Books:

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

All-0f-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

History Books:

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash by Susan Strasser.

10 responses to “Rubbish?”

  1. There’s one in Roller Skates, isn’t there? Several peddlers of other kinds come to mind, but I feel like they mostly dealt in cash… like the ones in LM Montgomery.


  2. Old Rags ‘n Bottles, you mean? Yep, although I don’t think they ever saw him again. Tony’s father was a peddler, too, but a seller (of fruit) rather than a buyer.

    In Little Women, the girls’ pocket money is called “rag money” and I assume that means it came from selling rags for cash.


  3. One of the presenters at the LMM conference I just attended focused a good bit of her analysis on the role of the peddler in Emily of New Moon–as a crosser of boundaries (religious & class) and a purveyor of information from the outside world to an insular community. I found it very interesting as I hadn’t even remembered him from my childhood reading. (Though I do remember that it was a peddler that was the source of the dye that turned Anne’s hair green in Anne of Green Gables!). It doesn’t link up with your analysis here because, as Wendy notes, these weren’t “rag and bone men.” But, with the topic of this post, you could be onto something for next year’s PEI LMM conference which is on the theme of “L.M. Montgomery and the Matter of Nature” including considerations of LMM as a “green writer” or a “proto-ecofeminist.” The deadline for paper proposals has just been extended to September 15th:


  4. I didn’t even think about the peddler who sold Anne the hair dye! One of the points Strasser made with her quotes from Farmer Boy was that it was a rare, positive portrayal of peddlers. Which may be why I didn’t think of Anne.
    Don’t know that I’m up for the LMM conference, though it would be awfully good to be back in PEI.


  5. Really, really interesting post.


  6. Caps for Sale comes to mind! There is also a Horatio Alger title. Boy with a Pack / Stephen Meader. I seem to recall some good descriptions of peddlers in The Good Master by Kate Seredy but my copy is packed away. Others are on the tip of my tongue.

    Modern day peddlers are the subject of the Pushcart War.


  7. Everyone seems to have tagged the books I would have mentioned, but I did want to say that the “rag man” operated until the early 1960s. We had a guy who came around our suburban neighborhood when I was a kid; I can still hear him shouting “Raaaaaaag maaaaan! Raaaaaaag maaaaaan!” We had a peddler, too, a guy who sold candy out of the back of his station wagon. Imagine that happening today!


  8. Thank you for this post! I have wondered all my life about why the tin peddler in FB would want rags! I am reading the book to my son now, got to that chapter tonight, and wondered it again afresh. I told my husband I needed an annotated Laura Ingalls Wilder set. But no, the internet to the rescue. 🙂


    1. So glad I could help!


  9. Us too! Just read that section in Farmer Boy with my kids today and had a good talk about bartering as an economic model, but we weren’t entirely sure about WHAT you’d do with rags. Thanks for the clarification.


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