When I take the rubbish out to the bin store outside my block of flats, I try to perform this necessary task as quickly as possible. Lift the lid, throw the bags in and make my getaway before the smell becomes overpowering.
One thing I don’t tend to do is stop and peer into the bins to see what my neighbours have thrown out. But perhaps I should as a new small exhibition at the Museum of London demonstrates that Londoners have for a long time been making money out of other people’s junk.
During the 18th and 19th century dust contractors made their fortunes by “cleansing and carting away all the soil, filth and dirt” from dust heaps and then removing items that could be sold for profit. The exhibition displays some discarded pottery from a rubbish dump near Lambeth Palace Road, but these workers scavenged for a range of items that could be used for agriculture and brick-making.
Fashions change and so clothing often gets discarded, but it doesn’t need to mean the end for the redundant items. Colourful women’s shoes on display from around 1720 to 1750 were made from fabric from the 1620s. Houndsditch became a popular place for second hand clothing dealers.
If shoes become damaged today, many people will simply throw them out and buy a new pair. But in the past the leather was patched up where possible – and some were shipped to France for refurbishment. “Leather is excellent in England, and of great esteem abroad in so much that whole shipful of old boots brought of England, and set up again after the French fashion, afford great gain to the merchant that bringeth them over,” wrote Henry Belasye in the 17th century.
The exhibition may stretch to just a few display cases, but what it proves is that from drinking glasses and pots to bowls and spoons, people have made a profit over the years from junk. Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look in the bins after all.