I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here

Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, 1880-1980

Martin V. Melosi

Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, 1880-1990, as the title suggests, is a study of the refuse problem in American cities, focusing on the period between 1880, when Martin V. Melosi argues widespread awareness of the garbage issue in cities originated, and 1920, when the focus on municipal garbage problems shifted away to post and pre-war issues. Melosi challenges the assumption that refuse issues are connected to the level of primitiveness in a society. Instead, Melosi asserts that garbage is actually a problem that arose rather recently in history without the development of the industrialized state and the urbanization of nation’s populaces. Furthermore, in order for a garbage problem to exist, those that are affected by the refuse must perceive of the problem and a certain level of public protest must be present. Melosi states that there are two societal trends that lead to refuse and other environmental problems. The first is overcrowding, poor sanitation, and primitive disposal. The second trend relates to the rising affluence and materialism of society. Melosi writes that the garbage problem caught the attention of reformers right after the movement for clean water and sanitation and right before the movement for clean air and noise abatement.

In Garbage in the Cities, Melosi tackles three major subjects: the scope of the refuse issue, how the issue was perceived by individuals at the time, and how reformers attempted to fix the problem. Although similar to the waste problems in Europe, the American issue was unique in its magnitude and in the wasteful and materialistic nature of its culture. By the 1880s and 1890s the garbage issue was so apparent that absolutely no one could continue to ignore it, Melosi claims. As a result, people began to see the responsibility of cleaning up the mess to be communal, rather than individual. A common trend throughout Garbage in the Cities is the consensus that municipal and state garbage solutions were preferable to private contracts, which were often associated with corruption.

Like the California settler’s in Linda Nash’s Inescapable Ecologies, individual conceptions of the garbage problem were heavily tied to their understanding of disease. In the early years, people still subscribed to what Melosi refers to as the filthy theory of disease, which originated in an understanding that the body was porous and susceptible to its environmental conditions. As a result, public health officials were often charged with the task of refuse removal. Additionally, emphasis was placed on an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, which gave little thought to the end result of garbage disposal, giving origin to dumps and water disposal methods. George Waring, the father of the “apostle of cleanliness,” subscribed to this older conception of disease. Waring’s methods focused on overhauling street cleaning in New York City, and emphasizing community and individual involvement. Waring, although his beliefs were old-fashioned, was able to demonstrate that modern American cities could move beyond the archaic and chaotic methods of the nineteenth century and opened the door for modern refuse collection and environmental consciousness, argues Melosi.

With the transition to the germ theory of disease, public officials were no longer obligated to deal with trash, and thus a new social profession, that of the sanitary engineer took over the organization of such considerations. Like the conservation professionals in Samuel P. Hays’ Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency, these sanitary engineers were also bitten by the efficiency bug. Systematic and orderly solutions were the only way to go. While the engineers covered the technical side of the equation, civic reformers brought the garbage issue to the public. The main role of these civic reformers, Melosi demonstrates, was to educate the public and popularize ethical, environmental tidiness and effectiveness. The City Beautiful Movement was one of the most well-known of these organizations.

As the twentieth century got under way automobiles necessitated the paving and clearing of city streets. Mechanized street sweeping and flushing machines became popular. The issue of garbage collection was not as easily solved by technology, Melosi argues. An abandonment of the “out of sight, out of mind” approach led to a more careful consideration of the means and the ends of garbage collection, and it was discovered that there was no one method that would meet the needs of every city. Dumps fell out of favor, while sanitary landfills became accepted. Recycling and incineration also enjoyed some popularity. After World War I, the problem of refuse continued to grow. Urban sprawl and the packaging revolution added great strain to the system. Americans became entrenched in a throwaway society, from which they are still attempting to emerge. At the time he is writing, 1980, Melosi suggests that society is finally acknowledging the part of the garbage problem, which prior generations had completely ignored, that of cutting waste off at its source. Thirty years later, we are perhaps making a dent in waste generation, but we still have a long way to go.

Feature Photo:

  • Title: [N.Y.C. Garbage collector’s strike, 1911: horse-drawn garbage cart dumped on street; 72nd St. & 1st Ave.]
  • Date Created/Published: 1911.
  • Medium: 1 photographic print.
  • Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-45870 (b&w film copy neg.)
  • Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
  • Call Number: LOT 10860 [item] [P&P]
  • Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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