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Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash Hardcover – September, 1999

12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"Nothing is inherently trash," claims Strasser (Satisfaction Guaranteed) in this vibrant social history of American attitudes toward superfluous or unusable material items. Before the 20th centuryAwhen mass production, post-WWII consumer culture and planned obsolescence created a society in which disposability was the normAbroken crockery, food, buttons, bones, fat, rags, tin, paper and other refuse were precious commodities, especially in areas of urban or rural poverty. Drawing on the work of such anthropologists as Mary Douglas, Thorsten Veblen and Claude L?vi-Strauss, of social critics like Jacob Riis and of such authors as Lydia Maria Child (whose popular The American Frugal Housewife was published in 1829), Strasser demonstrates how the designation "trash" exposes underlying attitudes about class, race, ethnicity, patriotism, survival, religion and art. Perceptively noting the intersections between capitalism, consumerism, industrialization and class mobility, the book spills over with fascinating factsAfor instance, in 1830, 10,000 hogs roamed Manhattan's streets eating garbage and providing food for the poor. It also offers revealing analyses of why many Jewish immigrants went into the rag business; how "trash" is gendered and how sanitary napkins became emblematic of the new disposable consumer culture. The chapters on the ultra-patriotic scrap drives of WWI and IIAparticularly Strasser's observations on how the U.S. government encouraged spying on those who "hoarded" scrap metalAare illuminating and prove her point that "trash" is always more than it appears. Agent, Mary Evans. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The author of books on housework and the American mass market, social historian Strasser explores what America has discarded, from the period when Colonists valued everything up to today's era of public landfills. She chronicles how mass production, technological change, ideals of cleanliness, and style have altered America's attitudes toward stewardship and throwing things out. Since paper production in the early days required the addition of scarce rags and scraps, people used paper sparingly. But while Henry Ford's Model T was meant to last, competitor General Motors's yearly model changes heralded a consumer culture that venerated the new. Strasser's well-sourced text, replete with attributions from women's magazines, indicates that genre's evolution from frugal housekeeper's counselor to consumer culture adjunct. Beginning as a countercultural environmental movement in the late 1960s, recycling had begun to enter the mainstream by the 1980s. The book ends on the promising note that "profligacy may one day be understood as a stage of development." Highly recommended for academic and large public libraries.AElaine Machleder, Bronx, NY
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 355 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; First Edition, "History" label on Jacket edition (September 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805048308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805048308
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 6.5 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,002,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Susan Strasser, Richards Professor Emerita of American History at the University of Delaware, has been praised by the New Yorker for "retrieving what history discards: the taken-for-granted minutiae of everyday life." Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982) won the Sierra Prize of the Western Association of Women Historians; Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999) was awarded the Abel Wolman Award from the Public Works Historical Society. She is currently working on A Historical Herbal, a history of the culture and commerce of medicinal herbs in the United States.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Renee Daphne Kimball on February 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Exceptionally fine read! Discusses with fascinating clarity what, on the surface, would appear to be a repellant subject. American History has a whole new meaning. This book answers the unspoken questions of "what DID they do with...." in an orderly, systematic yet very interesting way. Who would have known garbage could be so riveting?
Well written, without technical jargon and extremely well organized. Strausser has turned a sow's ear into a silk purse. Excellent discussion of the why and how of our detritus disposal through the ages right up through the Hippie revival of the 70's and the Recycling Exchange on the internet today.
I can highly recommend this book to anyone with even a slight interest in the cycle and re-cycle of our castoffs. The integral involvement of the homemaker in early days was a genuine eye-opener and a sparkling promise of future possibilities for us all.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is a history of household waste in the United States and what we have done with it over the years. Although Strasser takes her research as far back as colonial times, most of the focus is on the habits of the Nineteenth Century, and how they evolved with our changing society. The first chapter introduces the central theme of the book, how in the past, especially before the turn of the Twentieth Century, waste products served as raw materials for other products. In other words, before we ever invented the word "recycling", practically everything was recycled. Over the past 100 years, this has changed, so that now recycling seems like a new idea. Whereas in the past, cities and households constituted one component of a closed production/consumption system that included manufacturers, following the age of industrialization and mass production, that system has broken apart, and there is now a one-way flow from the factories to the consumers. And this flow leads eventually to mountains of garbage, for which we currently seem to have no better solution than mass burial.
Strasser begins her story by describing an archeological dig of a 1620s settlement, where matching pieces of potshards were discovered at great distances from each other, suggesting that if a pot was broken, residents might have been in the habit of reusing the pieces for other purposes. Social history is notoriously hard to reconstruct, since people of the time rarely thought the details of their daily lives important enough to document. This is especially true with the topic of waste, refuse, and garbage. But by carefully picking through such items as housekeeping manuals and business accounting ledgers, Strasser was able to pull many of the pieces of the garbage story together.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on June 8, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What an intriguing book. Not at all what I expected since I had assumed that materialism and toss out rather than repair was something that became the norm after WW2. The book says this actually happened close to one hundred years earlier. Interesting that during the Great Depression advertisers told people that buying, even on credit would be good. That changed when WW2 happened and sugar, gas etc were rationed, and people were once again encouraged to grow a vegetable garden, mend items rather than toss out.

Reading of the mid 1800's how women saved all clothing however well worn, and either repaired or torn apart to make into braided rugs etc reminded me of my paternal grandmother whom I can still see sitting in a comfortable chair making what once was shirts, dresses, skirts into large braided rugs for various rooms in our house.

Also enjoyed reading how even in New York city in the early 1900's had people who kept pigs in their back yards or basements. How no food scrap went to waste, because food wastes were either fed to the animals or put into a compost pile which would become rich fertile soil.

The information the author shares concerning flour sacks was really interesting, because I had long known that women would save, wash flour, seed, food sacks and make them into wearable clothing. But I had no idea that these sacks had washable dyes so that the women could wash them and have a pretty printed sack clothe, to make items. I also didn't know that women would take worn sheets, cut them down the middle and then sew both good sides together to get double duty out of the bed sheet.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Debbie TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 3, 2009
Format: Paperback
I read this book for research because I wanted to know what people used to do with trash (or what we now call trash). If you're interested in the answer, this is a good book to read. It discusses in detail what people used to do in the 1800's (and before) with old clothing, food scraps, cooking fats, worn or broken items, etc., and how and why that changed over time up until the present.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By appleton schneider on August 30, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
The extent of research is impressive. And the presentation is expressive, not just factual.
A great book that gives us a perspective of the past, and by juxtaposition, a penetrating
look at what the present means re. our values and our environment.
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