“Rubbish doesn’t lie,” explained Tom Licence, a senior lecturer in history at England’s University of East Anglia who is behind What the Victorians Threw Away. The ongoing project excavates Victorian England’s trash to examine how the late-19th century influenced the rise of today’s disposable consumer culture.
“Trash tells stories the history books don’t, particularly about the lives of ordinary people,” Licence told Hyperallergic. “Childhood objects, for example, such as dolls’ heads, alphabet cups, marbles, and dominoes, reveal the material culture of childhood in the average working household. A rubbish pit at the bottom of the garden can reveal exactly what that household was eating and drinking, and what illnesses they suffered, by looking at the medicine bottles.”
What the Victorians Threw Away has a growing database of objects unearthed from Victorian garbage heaps. There are luxury items like bone toothbrushes, owned by the elite when lower classes used soot or marshmallow root, and everyday items like chutney jars, showing how increased middle-class disposable income and mass production encouraged purchasing food that previously was homemade.
They’re joined by plenty of cracked ceramic faces and dislocated doll arms to nestle in your nightmares, as well as oddities like the “Frozen Charlotte” cake decorators. As Sarah Elizabeth Troop explained at Nourishing Death, these white dolls were based on a poem about a girl named Charlotte who freezes to death, and at “some point it became very fashionable to begin baking these tiny corpse dolls into birthday cakes or in the UK, in Christmas puddings, as a prize or party favor.”
Licence released a book, also titled What the Victorians Threw Away, last year with Oxbow Books, and with students and fellow researchers, he’s continuing to make new finds, some of which are tweeted at @VicsDustbin. Last month at the King’s Lynn town ashyard, they found waterlogged deposits from the 1890s which preserved wooden items, things rarely seen after decades in the earth, including cotton reels and dolly pegs.
“Trash tells us about the origins of our throwaway society,” he stated, “It reveals the decisions people made about what to discard and what not to.”
According to the What the Victorians Thew Away site, in “1870, soups, sauces, beef tea, ginger beer, jams, jellies and chutneys were made at home; by 1920 all were sold in glass or metal containers.” Prepared medicines became popular in the same era, overtaking home remedies, and discarded packaging reveals all sort of elixirs: “Barrow Evans Hair Restorer,” “Dr Wright’s Pearl Ointment,” “Elliman’s Embrocation,” and “Poor Man’s Friend.”
These decades also saw an increase in packaged household products, from sewing machine oil to furniture cream, much of which wasn’t recycled. This wasn’t always the case; a marmalade container thrown away in 1908 shows reuse as a paint jar, and rural households often held onto ginger beer bottles for their pantries. But why make and bottle your own ginger beer if it costs a penny?
Digging up the trash of the past is a long-held archaeological tradition, whether the treasure trove of discarded papyrus text found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, or midden heaps of bones and shells showing patterns of ancient life around the world. In their 2001 book Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage, William Rathje and Cullen Murphy wrote that “what people have owned — and thrown away — can speak more eloquently, informatively, and truthfully about the lives they lead than they themselves ever may.”
In New York City, you can walk the shore of Dead Horse Bay where a landfill used from the 1850s to 1930s has broken open, and bottles, shoes, tiny toys, and other scraps of everyday life litter the beach, the glass clinking audibly in the waves. Like the Victorian garbage heaps of England, it’s a portal into the consumption of recent history. Humans have always had trash, but it’s only recently that so much of our lives became so disposable, and much of this past remains just below the surface, able to tell stories already forgotten.