My work in progress has just taken itself off to New York City. This is a classic case of being swept along in the wake of one’s characters. I get very little say in the matter. As a result I’ve been researching life in the tenements of NYC in the late nineteenth century as well as the reception immigrants received at Castle Garden – which preceded Ellis Island until the latter opened in 1892.
One of the ways poor German immigrants scraped a living in New York was by the collection of rags, bones, metal, pottery, paper and glass. They set off at dawn armed with a poker and a basket and, as there was no official garbage collection, there were plentiful pickings on the streets. The rags would be taken home to the tenement buildings where they were washed (often by little girls) and hung out to dry from every available spot, then sold to the paper merchants. The bones were collected from dustbins and canteens, taken back and boiled clean. The meat would be eaten (yeuch!) and then the bones sorted by size and sold on. Bones were used to make handles for cutlery and other items. These people earned around $3 a week from their efforts – leaving money to put aside after paying a typical rent of $4 a month. Many of these rag and bone people headed out west to buy land once they’d saved enough. In the meantime they were prepared to live in overcrowded conditions – often amidst the foul stench of the boiling bones in dark unventilated tenements – many of which had cramped windowless rooms and no sanitation. Disease was rife – with 70% of all deaths in the city occurring among tenement dwellers and 50% of deaths being children under five.
All this seems long ago and far away – yet when I was a small child in 1950s Liverpool I remember the rag and bone man coming around the streets on his horse-drawn cart to make his collections – and I’ve just found this article proclaiming their demise as late as 1994 so they must have lingered on longer than I thought.