19th century New York City was knee-deep in trash

21 Oct

A couple of years ago, I wrote a story for Boys' Life about privy pit archaeology—the fine art and science of digging up the contents of centuries old toilets. It's less horrific than it sounds, mainly because privy pits weren't just toilets. In the time before regular sanitation service, they did double-duty as landfills. Most of what you pull out of a privy pit is people's trash—a pretty basic element of studying how people lived, and what was going on in their lives.

That's part of why I love this interview with Robin Nagle, the New York City Department of Sanitation's anthropologist-in-residence. As part of her (unpaid) position, Nagle is digging into the cultural and political history of trash in one of the world's largest cities. Turns out, 19th century New York City was a pretty vile place to live, with a sanitation-related death rate to rival medieval London.

Wasn't the public outraged? Why didn't the powers-that-be respond better?

Nagle: Because the corruption at that time was so deep. The money set aside for street cleaning was going into the pockets of the Tweed and Tammany politicians. Eventually, it got to be that it was so dirty for so long, no one thought that it could be any different. Imagine, on your own block, that you can't cross the street, even at the corner, without paying a street kid with a broom to clear a path for you, because the streets were layered in this sludge of manure, rotting vegetables, ash, broken up furniture, debris of all kind. It was called "corporation pudding" after the city government. And it was deep -- in some cases knee-deep.

OnEarth: Digging into New York City's Trashy History

(Via Philip Bump)

Image: Some rights reserved by D'Arcy Norman


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