Notes on Strasser — “Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags”

Strasser, Susan, “Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Obsolescence, Trash, and American Consumer Culture,” in Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman (ed.s), Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality, and the Digital Age (NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), pp. 41–60.

NB: Strasser’s research mostly reveals only what was happening in the US.

How the the growth of consumer culture can be traced through the history of trash:

“Stewardship of Objects and Materials” (42–45) Strasser charts the history of 19th-century household manuals — containing advice for housekeepers on maintenance of household objects.

Repair rather than replace: not buying new things was not considered a virtue or a discipline (i.e. “living simply”), but a way of life that was expected. (43)

Repair and thrift were also not just means of saving money, but also part of a desire for upward mobility. Strasser quotes Katherine C. Grier, who points out that repair, reuse, and what we know now as “upcycling,” were not “emblems of thrift”, but were indicators of “aspirations towards increased bodily comfort and the creation of self-consciously decorated rooms.” (43)

According to Strasser, “Catherine Beecher, author of the best-known nineteenth-century household manuals, recommended to a readership wealthy enough to own silk dresses that they rip out sleeves that were thinning at the elbows and switch them to the otherside, so that the good cloth formerly inside the elbows would be outside.” (44)

“Dress with a pattern that complements the shape created by the cage crinoline worn underneath it.” Museum no. T.702-1913. Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Available <>, accessed 18 Jan 2016.

Remaking, fixing, and finding uses for things that today we would consider trash entailed a consciousness about materials and objects that derives from the processes of handwork. Repair ideas come more esaily to people who make things. (45)

“You can appraise the materials and evaluate the labor of the original maker; you can recognize the principles of the object’s construction; you can comprehend the significance of the tear or the wobble and how it might be mended […]” (45)


“Used materials were as integral to the general economy as to the household economy, an essential element of economic processes, not a mere by-product.” (45)

“Karangguni” by mailer_diablo. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Rag & Bone trade was commonplace.

Rags were used for making paper or cheap fabrics called “shoddy” Bones could yield grease and gelatin, could be made into knife handles, ground into fertilizer, or burned into charcoal for use in sugar refining. (45)

Use of secondhand glass bottles was widespread because mechanization of glass manufacturing was slow — use of recycled bottles was more efficient.

“Materials cycled between households and factories, creating a two-way relationship between manufacturers and consumers.” (46) Recycling was not a Green Earth or Sustainability initiative — it was a way of moving scarce and necessary resources for industry. There was ample incentive to save cloth wherever possible, and sell scraps/rags to the recycling mills that were buying them.

Mellino, Cole, “23-Year-Old Hasn’t Produced Any Garbage in Two Years,” EcoWatch, published 12 Feb 2015, available: <>

Between practicing household reuse and selling things to peddlers and general stores, most Americans produced comparatively little trash before the twentieth century. But what trash they did produced was dumped: in streets, in rivers, in ravines, and in the ocean. Until the late nineteenth century, American cities had no landfills or incinerators. (46)

“Industrialization broke the cycle.” (47)

In an industrial system, the flow is one way: materials and energy are extracted from the earth and converted by labor and capital into industrial products and marketable by-products, and into waste, which is returned to the ecosystem but does not nourish it. (47)

Stepping stones on old streets did not function merely as markers for pathways, but also to allow pedestrians to stay clear of the waste that was flowing through the streets. (47) (e.g. in Pompeii) []

Until the late 19th-century, there were no means of trash collection and disposal, except to dump it wherever you could.


2 things happened towards the turn of the century:

Expansion of Industry

“Towards the end of the nineteenth century, disposal became separate from production […]. Trash making became integral to the economy in a new way: the growth of markets for new products came to depend in part on the continuous disposal of old things.” (48)

Paper making shifted from using rags to wood pulp.

As the effects of mass production kicked in (more efficient production processes, less use for reusable/recyclable materials, more goods, more people got hired by factories therefore taking them away from the sort of Rag & Bone entrepreneurship that was commonplace before), “people bought what they needed instead of improvising”. (48)

Trash became a technical problem to be solved: make more efficient systems, machines to get rid of trash; hire people to run these systems. (49)

People no longer had to get rid of their trash themselves — it was handed over to the administrators of the town/city.

Electricity, plumbing, and gas lines were introduced to the cities. This “eliminated the work of making fires, cleaning lamps, and hauling wood, coal, and water, making possible a level of cleanliness unthinkable for most people when heat and light came from open fires and water was carried in from outside.” (50)

This was also one of the first few instances of technological obsolescence in the household, a concept that was previously only applied to the domain of industry and production (production machines would wear out, or factories would buy newer and more efficient machines):

Until the twentieth century, technological obsolescence was a concern of manufacturers faced with decisions about replacing workable production machinery with the latest innovations. By the 1920s, it was an ordinary concept, familiar to people who had thrown away old kerosene lamps first in favour of advanced models and then because they had electricity. (53)

Strasser writes that the “automobile market served as a model for manufacturers and dealers of other consumer goods.” Bigger, faster, stronger. Newer, Better.


Advertising and marketing embraced this new culture of obsolescence:

Advertising propagandised values, ideas, and ideals that were eventually to affect people of all classes, all her the country. Now articles could be declared obsolete because new technologies had made them so or for reasons of style and fashion, which were no longer the sole province of the wealthy. The selling points of modern products — styling, technological superiority, convenience, and cleanliness — all amounted to arguments for disposing of things rather than seeking ways to reuse them. (50)

This was also when things were being made to be discarded after use.

Disposable paper products fostered the idea that it was acceptable to use throwaways rather than durable products, at least in the service of cleanliness.


“Efficiency,” usually applied to machines and industry, took the form of “convenience” in the household:

Modern products offered release form the responsibility of caring for material goods, teh stewardship of objects and materials that characterised teh traditional relationship to the material world. Convenience was a synonym and a metaphor for freedom, a form of well-being that products could provide, an amalgam of luxury, comfort, and emancipation from worry. (51)

This came out of an adoption and extension of “the principle of fashion — obsolescence on the basis of style” for goods outside of clothing. (52)

Fashion’s “abbreviated time span and its systematic obsolescence have become characteristics inherent in mass production and consumption,” [French social critic Gilles Lipovetsky] writes, and “consumers spontaneously hold that the new is by nature superior to the old.” (52)

Repositioning a product could increase the market […]. Markets could be expanded by suggesting more uses for products […]. Year-round demand was created for products previously considered seasonal. And manufacturers found that they could sell more if they offered a range of options, different grades at different prices. (52)

Price discrimination?

“Historian Roland Marchand has shown that the process of extending fashion to a wide variety of objects in the 1920s was often achieved with color, which could be varied without redesigning products or retooling factories.” (52)


“[…] incessant novelty battled tradition and custom.”

Christine and J. George Frederick coined the phrase “progressive obsolescence” (55):

[Christine Frederick] enumerated its characteristics — a suggestible state of mind, “eager and willing to take hold of anything new”; a readiness to get rid of a product “before its natural life of usefulness is completed, in order to make way for the new and better thing”; and a willingness to spend “a very large share of one’s income, even if it pinches savings,” in order to have new things and new experiences. (56)

As the throwaway culture and consumerism marched on, thrift came to be understood and seen as what Strasser calls the “skills of poverty” — behaviours of consumption were then marked as a means to move up social strata.