Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Of Trash and Tenements

Curatorial Director Dave Favaloro on the history of garbage collection on the Lower East Side

Residents of working-class neighborhoods like the Lower East Side were supposed to place their garbage in garbage-boxes set in front of the tenement building, but these boxes were "not at all sufficient for the people disposed to be cleanly." Even when they were available, and they were often not, they frequently proved to be less than ideal. In 1863, the New York Tribune reported that garbage boxes were little more than receptacles of "heterogeneous filth…forming one festering, rotting, loathsome, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth, reeking on the fierce sunshine."

For much of the 19th century, street cleaning in New York was conducted by private carting operations who were awarded contracts by the municipal government. Not surprisingly, such a system encouraged political patronage and ultimately proved ineffective. For decades, household refuse and rotting animal carcasses remained piled in the streets of the city.

Garbage on Ludlow Street in the late 19th Century

Beginning in 1866, the Metropolitan Board of Health assumed authority over street cleaning. This power was transferred to the Metropolitan Board of Police in 1872. In 1881, the Department of Street Cleaning was created.

Effective street-cleaning, however, did not arrive until the appointment of George Waring to direct the department in 1895. In that year, Waring “reorganized the department along military lines, minimized political influence in employing workers, stressed sweeping by hand rather than with machines, and dressed street sweepers in white duck uniforms, earning them the nickname of “white wings.”

1 comment:

  1. This is super interesting. I am addicted to anything garbage-related, which is a weird hobby to have but I pride myself of appreciating the need for proper clean-up around any metropolitan area. Nick DiMola creates an especially cool blog, combining his passion for garbage collecting and his passion for antique collecting at


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