Monday 18 October 2010

The Rag and Bottle Man

A Leisure Hour piece from 1863, giving details of one of the many Victorian professions revolving around 'recycling':


FOG ALLEY is a small and circumscribed place, forming a sort of microcosm or little world of its own. We are not going to inform the reader as to its precise locality, for reasons which may appear : if he be an inhabitant of London, and a person of observation, he will be at no loss to fix upon the site at once and if he is not, of course it can be of no importance to him to know whereabouts Fog Alley is located. There are thousands of people who pass by the narrow entrance to the alley every day of their lives, and yet know nothing about it ; for the entrance is so small and unpretentious, and so dirty withal, that it presents no attractions to the explorer, who must walk between walls scarcely three feet apart, for a distance of some twenty yards, before he can be said to have entered the precincts. Once fairly within, however, and the prospect, though of the dingiest, is not wanting the elements of life and activity. The alley is paved with flags, and is so closed up at both ends as to be inaccessible to anything broader than a wheelbarrow; still, for most of its length it shows a comfortable area, in which a round number of swarming denizens, chiefly of the struggling classes, fight the battle of life after a manner of their own. The dwellings are half shops, and half, we were going to say, private houses; but we question the application of that term, to houses which are open daily and nightly to the wayfarers of all the world, and which never close their doors, unless they happen to be full, against the traveller who can compensate their hospitality with such a thing, say, as threepence. Among them there is "The Traveller's Rest," "The Wayfarer's Home," "The Wanderer's Refuge," and we know not how many others, with equally romantic and benevolent titles, where the poorest wretch (who can pay for it) can shelter his homelessness.
    The shops are much in keeping with these philanthropic hostels, and deal exclusively in such matters as the struggling classes want to buy or sell. There is a baker, whose oven keeps the flags in front of him warm and dry all the year round, and whose bread, if it is sometimes a little sour, is always twopence a quartern under the tip-top price, and who every now and then displays a huge broadside in his window, bearing the words "DOWN AGAIN TO 5d." There is an amalgamated grocery and general shop, which does business on as cheap a principle ; there is a coal-shed and potato-store equally moderate in its demands ; and among other shops no less necessary, but less worthy of note, there is the rag-and-bottle shop of Mr. Daniel Taggs, whom it is our intention, with the reader's permission, to introduce more particularly to his notice.
    At the first glance, Daniel's shop would seem the least promising in the place. Over its entrance hangs the effigy of something which oscillates between the traditionally black doll of our forefathers, and the Aunt Sally of modern fairs and rough play-grounds. The pendent figure may be either one or the other, the weather-stains of unrecorded summers and winters having bleached and soddened it out of any very exact semblance to either. The shop window is crammed with old-world linen garments, with the concave heels of bottles heaped against the panes, with fragments of many-coloured kerseymere and broadcloth, with small collections of tangled horsehair, with patches of chintz and damask, of faded embroidery and damaged moreen, from the folds and interstices of which peeps forth here a crippled bootjack, there a patent corkscrew minus the worm, and in a dozen other places, the relics and remnants of Brummagen jewellery, shorn of its gems and polish the whole collection being buttressed by a mass of leather just a little mouldy, and consisting of the cashiered hoots, half-boots, bluchers, high-lows, shoes, and slippers, of all grades of society. The inside of the shop is much more striking, though not from the elegance of its contents; it is in fact one congeries of lumber, heaped about on all sides in apparently hopeless confusion. The collection comprises barrels, tubs, pails, stone jars, pots, kettles, plates, dishes, rolls of floor-cloth, packing-chests, barrel-stoops, kitchen-ranges, copper-boilers, sets of shelves, knife-boards, done-up cooking utensils, run- down bottle-jacks, stew-pans that have sprung a leak, foundered fish-kettles, heaps of old books and newspapers, yawning pans of dripping, tubs of housemaid's tallow, and above all, bottles of every conceivable size and shape, and rags of every imaginable texture and hue. Nor is this all ; for the walls are draped with carpets of various pattern algid no pattern, with window-curtains and hangings, and with counterpanes, blankets, and bed-linen ; while a collection of miscellaneous hardware, the fragments of implements of brass, iron, copper, and tin, flanks the open door-way.
    In contemplating such a shop as Daniel Taggs' two questions are apt to present themselves. By what means does the proprietor obtain his multifarious properties? and by what means does he get rid of them? both of which we shall endeavour to answer as briefly as may be. In the first place, Dan's clients from whom he purchases, are in good part the servant girls, who sell to him their presents and perquisites, in the shape of cast-off finery, their own or their mistresses', when it is done with ; and in the shape of candle-ends, kitchen refuse, the disjecta of departed lodgers, the contents of the rag-bag, old cast-off shoes, hats, bonnets, the physic bottles and phials which are left after a bout of sickness in the house, and various other things which their employers desire to got rid of. All these et-ceteras Betty will bring readily enough to Fog Alley, and turn them into cash, while gossiping with Taggs over his counter ; though it is a question whether Betty would carry them for sale at all, if the transaction had to take place in an open and frequented thoroughfare, like Holborn or the Strand: she would probably feel her respectability come promised by conducting such a negotiation in the face of the world, and would decline it altogether. The favourite time for this department of Taggs' business is just when darkness has set in, and before it is time to fetch the supper beer from the public-house ; sometimes, indeed, as we know from observation, both commissions are executed, as they say, under one ; for we have seen Betty in close conference with Taggs, with the supper-jug in her hand, while he was appraising her bundle of commodities. But better clients than the servant girls are to Dan, inasmuch as they yield him a far wider margin, are the householders living in his neighbourhood, who from time to time move from one house to another. When Robinson has got up in the world, and built or bought a new house, or when he has received notice to quit from his landlord whatever may be the cause of his moving, he is sure to be in a more or less excited state about it. The pulling down and packing up the uncarpeting of floors the dismantling of walls the uprooting of garden-beds—the row that is made the dust that is raised the lumbering, racketing, smashing and reckless injury inflicted upon his poor penates— all these things disturb and disarrange his nervous system, and he pants for the hour that shall see it all at an end, and himself once more in a comfortable home. When the last van has started on its way from the old house to the new, and there is nothing further to do than to get rid of the lumber left behind, he sends for the rag-and-bottle man to come and clear it off. Perhaps while the messenger has gone, he strolls through the dusty rooms, and sums up the items of the remaining wreck ; there is that parlour-carpet that has been down seven years, and may have years' wear in it yet: but of course he must have new for the new house ; there are those old French bedsteads ; there are a dozen cane-seat chairs ; there is some half ton weight of old journals and newspapers; and, together with no end of abandoned kitchen utensils, there are long rows of empty bottles in the cellar to say nothing of a heap of old clothes, hats, and boots heaped up in the ball. Robinson has not the remotest idea of the marketable value of all this collection, and perhaps it is as well that he has not; but he is not a little startled when the dealer, having made his appearance and taken a critical survey of the whole, makes him the magnificent offer of "fourteen shillings for the lot."
    "Fourteen. shillings!" shouts Robinson; "you are dreaming."
    The dealer, who considers himself wide awake, makes no reply to this ejaculation, but after a pause, and another glance round, adds coolly, "That's my price, sir, for the lumber; of course if you can do better with it, you does, an' no harm done."
    What is Robinson to do? There is no other dealer in the neighbourhood, and at twelve o'clock he must deliver up the key to the landlord or else pay another quarter's rent a contingency which is quite as well known to the dealer as it is to him. So the end of it is, that the, cunning knave gets the goods at his own price, and all the compensation Robinson has, is the pleasure of being cheated, which the author of "Hudibras" extols; but which, having never been able to realize it in practice, we take to be only a poetical figment.
    Now, we can say this much for Daniel Taggs, that when he is called in to pronounce in such cases, he does not fleece his clients in that abominable style. Dan carries a conscience with him to his work, and, acting on the principle of doing as he would be done by, gives a fair price, although he is his own appraiser. Of course he takes care of himself, as he is bound to do ; but his liberal dealing is well known in his own neighbourhoods and it has won him a connection whose patronage is worth more to him than the sharp practice of some of his congeners in the trade is worth to them. Another market to which Dan is indebted for a good part of his wares is opened to him by auctioneers and their foremen, who, when a house has to be cleared of goods by sale, consign to him the uncatalogued waifs and sundries which escape being knocked down by the hammer, and which, if not removed, would rot on the premises or be appropriated, if not thrust out, by the next tenant. Of goods bought over the counter, Dan might possess much more than he does ; Fog Alley is conveniently recluse and out of the way of the public—the very place, it might be thought, for a receiver of stolen goods to set up his den. Years ago some of the London thieves, thinking Taggs' was "a fencing ken," brought their plunder to him, and got into prison in consequence of his want of sympathy with them. They never make that mistake now, and Dan is not troubled with that fraternity.
    But Taggs buys in order to sell. Let us see now how he gets rid of his goods. In the first place, he sells more in his shop than you would think. The very poor are not choice as to the markets in which they buy; the broken chairs and tables which came to Dan as lumber are repaired by his own hands, and sold to the a labouring and working ranks at a low price. His carpets, his hangings, his blankets and bed linen, find their way into the low lodging-houses, whose owners often bespeak them, and pay for them by instalment, on the tally system. For the bottles be has a sure vent among the wine-merchants, beer-sellers, spirit-dealers, etc. The doctors' phials he cleans and sorts, and sells by the gross to the practitioners among his connection. The cooper will take his casks and tubs, if he cannot meet with private customers for them. His stock of boots and shoes are repaired by a travelling cobbler, who contracts for them by the dozen, and on the Saturday night they walk off scores at a time, to cut a figure on Sunday. Even for his broken glass he has a claimant, who comes round regularly and clears it away, at so much a hundred- weight. Of course the tallow and the grease go to the candle-makers ; and the bones for Taggs deals in bones, though you do not see them in the shop are sold for manure. Concerning the rags, which after all form the most important section of his trade, we might enter into details if we chose, which would fill half a dozen columns. Enough to say, that they are sorted by Mrs. Taggs and the children, in a warehouse at the back of the shop, and though bought by weight in the mass are sold according to their value. The most valuable are the remnants and fragments of old linen which has been often washed without being much worn and wasted ; this is consigned to the lint-makers, who will pay a high price for it. The paper-maker has the next best kind; and the refuse is disposed of to a contractor, who fetches it away, for what purpose Taggs does not care to inquire—though, since the repeal of the paper duty, this refuse grows less and less in quantity.
    Buying cheap, and selling at a swingeing profit, the rag-and-bottle man is almost invariably a prosperous trader. It is true that he labours under the stigma of a rather doubtful character ; but, as in the case of Taggs, this is by no means always deserved. On the contrary, many of them are honest and morally respectable. Now and then you see one struggling to emerge from the unsavoury slough of his repulsive business; first he will drop the trade in grease; then he declines the bones; then the bottles are cashiered ; and lastly, he will bid adieu to the rags, transforming his shop by degrees into that of a general dealer, glittering with articles of taste, enlivened by a few pictures, and abounding in the polish of old Spanish mahogany. This transformation, however, is not over common among them, nor is it always desired. As a class they are earnest seekers after wealth, and they know well enough that fortunes have been won by persevering traffic in the rubbish and refuse which is their peculiar merchandise. It is only in nomenclature that there is such a tremendous gap between the rag-and-bottle man and the millionaire; they have been known before now to be in person one and the same.

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