Rag-and-Bone Men of the Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, the rag-and-bone man, sometimes called a bone grubber, rag picker (chiffonnier in French), bone picker, or tot-picker, searched and collected bones and rags from dust-bins, gutters, and streets. Many of these rag-and-bone men had fallen on hard times and scavenging for rags and bones was the best they could do. Although the rag-and-bone man might be considered enterprising, gathering bones, old worsted stockings, worn-out blankets, and cast-off woolen clothes of every description, one author described him as “an emaciated being whose garb betokens misery, and whose palate has become tasteless, for he is eating the meat from the refuse bones thrown in to the street, and wrangling with a dog for the possession of a crust saved from the gutter.”[1] One reason for this description was because rag-and-bone men did often dine on dried bread crusts found in garbage bins or on scraps of meat affixed to bones that housekeepers or cooks gave them.

One of the Rag-and-Bone Men known as a Bone-Grubber, Public Domain

The Bone-Grubber. Public domain.

Like climbing boys, cats’ meat sellers, or baked potato sellers, the rag-and-bone man could easily be identified by his tools of the trade: a greasy bag slung over his shoulder (or a “mat-basket” carried under his arm) and his “stick with a spike or crook at the end … [which was used to] turn over the heaps of ashes thrown from the houses, … [to] see if they contain[ed] anything … saleable.”[2] The rag-and-bone man hoped to find rags or bones (although he preferred rags), but he also searched for “waste metal, such as bits of lead, pewter, copper, brass, or old iron, he prize[d] above all.”[3] However, some men in their “preambulations” searched for live cats — “the skins of which were sold and the carcasses … dispose[d] of to the mutton pie man! when tainted meat [was] scarce, or when that respectable vendor of promiscuous victuals [was] not over-burthened.”[4]

The Rag-and-bone Man with His Greasy Bag and Mat-basket, Public domain

The rag-and-bone man with his greasy bag and mat-basket. Public domain.

Rag-and-bone men were often the first ones on the streets. They rose early in the morning to scour the London suburbs, which, according to Henry Mayhew in his multi-volume London Labour and the London Poor, was also where most of them congregated, although “in the neighbourhood of Petticoat-lane and Ragfair … they [were] the most numerous on account of the great quantity of rags which the Jews … [threw] out.”[5] The rag-and-bone men made their “rounds” that lasted from a few hours to as long as twelve, and some traveled as far as 30 miles in a single day before returning midday to “Rag-pickers’ Paradise,” so named because hundreds of rag-and-bone dealers resided the area.

Sorting the Rag-and-bone Man's Finds, Public Domain

Sorting the rag-and-bone man’s finds. Public domain.

Rag-pickers’ Paradise, which in the 1870s was located in the Eleventh Ward at the rear of number 88 and 90 on Sheriff Street in London, consisted of dilapidated cottage buildings with narrow balconies. The rag-and-bone man’s daily collection was taken to a room were the ritual of sorting occurred. They separated “white rags from the coloured ones, boots, bottles, and bones, each to their own heaps,”[6] and then into “barrels, boxes, baskets and pans on the table, under the table, in chairs, and every corner of the room.”[7] Mayhew estimated that annually the rag-and-bone men gathered “3,744,000 lbs. of bones and 1,240,000 lbs of rags.”[8]

Rag-and-bone Man's Cart, Public Domain

Rag-and-bone man’s cart. Public domain.

After sorting, at 1:00 p.m., this “accumulated nastiness” was sold to merchants, who arrived in two-horse wagons. To transport the nastiness from the sorting room to the wagons, dogs were often “harnessed to the rag carts … [to pull] sickening nuisances in the shape of decayed vegetables, damaged meat, bones, bread, cheese and numerous other obnoxious sundries.”[9] Additionally, sometimes the dogs were so plentiful it was claimed “you may regard yourself fortunate if you escape a bite.”[10] For three or four hours the ritual of transferring the smelly nastiness occurred, and, after the wagons left the yards, the carts often remained on the streets to accommodate “daily customers who may have strolled too far away from Paradise with their heavy burdens to return in due time.”[11]

The Chiffonnier, Public Domain

The chiffonnier. Public domain.

There were ongoing complaints in the 1870s about the stench and odors emitted from Paradise, which was described as “unendurable.” A Health Warden was charged with cleaning up Paradise and improving the sanitary conditions. He did achieve many improvements, but the area in general was still considered “a nuisance, detrimental to the health of the Ward and City.”[12] One reporter argued:

“[The rag-and-bone] business should at once be discontinued and transplanted beyond the city limits. If that cannot be done, certainly the carts should be placed under the superintendence of the City Inspector’s Department, and the day-scavengers compelled to submit to all the rules and regulations which govern night-scavengers.”[13]

In the mid-1890s new complaints in inner London surfaced due to “offensive smells emanating from certain premises … of a rag and bone dealer.”[14] The Public Health committee received the letter asking them to consider the business of a rag and bone dealer to be an offensive trade. Whatever the committee decided would affect several hundred other rag-and-bone tradesmen in London County, and, so, the committee decided that “the facts at present … do not justify the promulgation of such an order.”[15] They maintained that before declaring such an order they needed to “ascertain by general inquiry … whether any complaints of a similar kind had been made in other districts.”[16]

A Rag-and-bone Man, Public Domain

A rag-and-bone man. Public domain.

Smells were not the only complaints lodged against the rag-and-bone men. In the county of Waterford, Ireland, in the mid 1800s, a great cache of splendid bones were supposedly found in Whitechurch during rock quarrying. They were described as “prodigiously large bones; some … as thick as a man’s body, whilst a single tooth was seven or eight times larger than a horse’s.”[16] Unfortunately, the rag-and-bone man carried them off. One fossil hunter was upset and declared the itinerant rag-and-bone man was “the greatest enemy of the antiquarian in Ireland … [as] everything in the shape of a bone is ‘grist for his mill.’ Indeed many a splendid [bone is] … ruthlessly broken into fragments by him and committed to the bone manure heap.”[17]

Rag-and-bone men continued to survive into the twentieth century, although by the mid 1900s most had given up their greasy bag and mat-basket for a handcart. A Manchester Guardian reporter accompanied one rag-and-bone man, John Bibby, in 1958 as he made his rounds near Manchester and noted that Bibby collected “rags, furs, shoes, scrap car parts, a settee, and other furniture,”[18] for which he received about £2. By 1965, it was estimated only a “few hundred” rag-and-bone men remained in London. Most had been driven out of business by specialized trades or pressure from property developers to sell their premises, and, by the 1980s, most were gone. However, they still exist in some countries, such as India, and they continue to search for the odds and ends that earned them the name of rag-and-bone man.

A Parisian Rag-and-bone Man in 1899, Courtesy of Wikipedia

A Parisian rag-and-bone man in 1899. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Vol. V, 1838, p. 265.
  • [2] The Parish Magazine, May 1822, p. 12.
  • [3] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. II, 1861, p. 139.
  • [4] The Odd Fellows’ Magazine, Vol. V, 1838, p. 265.
  • [5] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. II, 1861, p. 139.
  • [6] Hamilton, Lord Frederic, etal., eds., The Pall Mall Magazine, Vol. II, 1894, p. 283.
  • [7] Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. 14, 1858, p. 285.
  • [8] Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. II, 1861, p. 140.
  • [9] Friends’ Intelligencer, Vol. 14, 1858, p. 285.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] The Medical Press and Circular, Vol. 113, 1896, p. 587.
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] The Field Quarterly Magazine and Review, Vol. 2, 1871, p. 270.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] “Squeezing Out the Rag Men,” The Times, 9 March, 1965.

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