Rubbish History

Emily Cockayne, Rummage: A History of the Things We Have Reused, Recycled and Refused to Let Go

Profile, 304pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781781258514

reviewed by Anna Parker

What is it that is so beguiling about used things? One of my favourite writers is Barbara Pym, whose novels include extremely sharp observations about the social lives and manners of the middle class in post-war England, always delivered with warm humour and a unique generosity towards the ordinary spinsters that serve as her principal characters. I lent a friend one of her books. ‘These jumble sales are hotbeds of intrigue,’ she texted me later.

Nearly every Pym contains a scene at a church bazaar, where local power struggles play out amongst trestle tables that overflow with bric-a-brac. In Pym’s A Few Green Leaves (1981), the rector’s sister Daphne Dagnall collects things for the parish’s upcoming jumble sale. This includes a box of ‘oddments’ containing, among other things, ‘odd saucers suitable for cat dishes, plastic earrings, an old string of pearls with the pearliness peeling off, a tattered paperback novel whose cover portrayed the bare shoulders of a couple in bed’. A local gourmet critic named Adam Price contributes some old clothes, including (concealed in a bundle) ‘a pair of jeans, too tight and too youthful, definitely “a bad buy”’. Women rule over Pym’s jumble sales, leaving the men standing uselessly at doorways or ‘uncertainly’ in the hall. When the parish ladies later sort through the gathered tat, they discover Adam’s jeans and there is ‘a shout of raucous laughter’. Used or pre-worn things evoke alternate lives, former desires and other ways of being. Adam’s jeans show an aspirational self briefly occupied, found ill-fitting, and cast-off. Their presence is an embarrassing reminder of the momentary illusions of the mature, sedate and now appropriately-trousered middle-aged critic.

In Rummage, Emily Cockayne picks her way through the jumble of the past. While once-beloved items often appear mended or remade, Cockayne is primarily concerned with reuse, what she calls ‘material redemption’ – the salvaging of an object’s constituent materials, which are then reused to make new things or in industrial processes. Had Adam wanted to be rid of his jeans centuries earlier, they might have ended up as ‘a delicate riding habit for a Belgravian belle’ (as described in Samuel Jubb’s 1860 account of the second-hand clothing trade, The History of Shoddy); as paper; or reworked into a fetching quilt. Tracking these processes of reuse, Cockayne presents an extremely well-researched, encyclopaedic history of the way that we have dealt with junk. As she argues, these things illuminate history: our treatment of old things is a window on ‘cultural judgement, social norms, taste and memory’.

To chart social norms, Cockayne stands chronology on its head. The book begins in the 1990s and ends in the 1530s, each chapter an attempt to sift backwards ‘down through the deposits and layers of culture’. This is a nice narrative subversion – as the story progresses, Cockayne takes the reader closer to the bottom of the scrap heap. The repurposing of materials over time reveals the history of science, manufacturing, experimentation, politics and the economy. While Cockayne devotes much time to the intricacies of recycling systems dedicated to certain materials, such as glass or paper, her findings are at their most evocative when they go beyond the granular. The reuse of religious objects, for example, makes clear how cultural judgements affected what was considered ‘rubbish’. After the Reformation, the materials that made up Catholic church objects were reused for secular purposes. Altar stones were made into stairs or sinks, while clerical vestments became cushions. In the late Victorian period, rich Catholics, newly permitted to practice their religion, imported second-hand Gothic oak carvings and stained-glass windows from Europe. This was an attempt to make visible the historic nature of their faith, the rich trappings of which had long ago been anonymously absorbed into Protestant homes across Britain.

Rummage overflows with such intriguing examples. However, this richness is also the book’s limitation. It is dense with anecdotes, stories of individuals, and case studies of materials, traders and industrial techniques. Cockayne’s conclusions tend to get buried among all this stuff. This is most evident when the chapters progress in decade-sized chunks. Cockayne stirs up the sediment of each decade, which are presented in the form of specialist case studies – yet sometimes the reader is left without interpretation, or a guiding conclusion, on the detail that Cockayne has stirred up. I was left wanting a story.

But perhaps this sense of dissatisfaction is a product of the work’s primary thesis: practices of reuse have always been irregular. As Cockayne shows, reuse has been riddled with inconsistencies, catches which trip up the story. Improvements in one area often undermined reuse in another. In the 1970s, the TV series The Wombles featured pro salvagers who made things with litter picked from Wimbledon Common. Despite the show’s environmental message, a generation of children pestered their parents to buy them cuddly plush Wombles, made out of artificial materials that were impossible to recycle. 20th-century recycling schemes were extremely limited. Councils failed to understand how people lived, especially the issue of how much space they had in their homes to store piles of paper or stacks of empty bottles. Instead, individuals often stepped in to fill the gap. These schemes, however, were rarely led by environmental motivations: in 1919, the British Dogs’ Wool Association, founded by titled ladies in Kensington, appealed for the combed-out hair of Pekinese, chow and Pomeranians. The Association claimed that the hair could be spun into clothing for wounded soldiers. Funnily enough, their claim for the usefulness of old dog hair appeared right after the local MP suggested Pekinese would best serve the war effort if baked into pies.

Given the failures of elites, the history of successful reuse is often the story of the people on the margins. Cockayne’s book introduces lives lived on the edges of consumerism. Before the 20th century, there were many trades devoted to recycling. Henry Mayhew’s survey London Labour and the London Poor (1851) catalogued mudlarks, sewer-hunters and dredgermen, as well as ‘pure-finders’ who scooped dog poo off the streets and sold it to tanneries in Bermondsey. Given the lowly nature of such work, these kinds of traders were consistently maligned. In the 1680s, popular ballads claimed that tinkers, who mended metal vessels, had sex with bored housewives (much like the modern-day trope of the plumber). Outside of trade, Cockayne argues that the best reuse often happened in the private space of the home where, as the everyday work of women, it was typically unrecorded.

It is difficult to see how the higgledy-piggledy history of reuse and recycling equips us to face the environmental problems of the present. Adam’s jeans unsettled him because they reminded him of his inappropriate youthful energy. Now, piles of bric-a-brac are uncomfortable for a more profound anxiety they generate: how do we deal with the detritus that we have accumulated? Policy is still inconsistent; the focus is still on individuals rather than on effective government action. National attitudes to reuse lead us in many directions at once. For example, in the last decades, reused items have become a trendy consumer good, with ‘salvaged’ or ‘up-cycled’ furniture or clothing sold at marked-up prices. Even this development is undermined by the government’s current messaging. To prevent the inevitable post-coronavirus recession, British people have been urged to go out and buy new on the high street. Learning from Cockayne’s examples of those who have been quietly self-sufficient at home, or past trades devoted to reuse, might point to one route. Nationally, however, we need much more than this: the focus needs to go beyond the home and individual. Forget the parish ladies: it is time for jumble to be centre of the political stage.
Anna Parker is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge.