Rag-and-bone Man

A rag-and-bone man collects unwanted household items and sells them to merchants. Traditionally this was a task performed on foot, with the scavenged materials (which included rags, bones and various metals) kept in a small bag slung over the shoulder.

Some wealthier rag-and-bone men used a cart, sometimes pulled by horse. 19th-century rag-and-bone men typically lived in penury, surviving on the proceeds of what they collected each day. Conditions improved following the Second World War, but the trade declined during the latter half of the 20th century. Lately, however, due in part to the soaring price of scrap metal, rag-and-bone men can once again be seen at work.

In the UK, 19th-century rag-and-bone men scavenged unwanted rags, bones, metal and other waste, from the towns and cities where they lived. Henry Mayhew’s 1851 report, ‘London Labour and the London Poor,’ estimates that in London, between 800 and 1,000 ‘bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers’ lived in lodging houses, garrets and ‘ill-furnished rooms in the lowest neighbourhoods.’ According to Mayew, ‘The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy bag which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marine-store shop.’

These bone-grubbers, as they were sometimes known, would typically spend nine or ten hours searching the streets of London for anything of value, before returning to their lodgings to sort whatever they had found. In rural areas where no rag merchants were present, rag-and-bone men often dealt directly with rag paper makers, but in London they sold rag to the local trader. White rag could fetch 2–3 pence per pound, depending on condition (all rag had to be dry before it could be sold). Colored rag was worth about two pence per pound. Bones, worth about the same. Bones could be used as knife handles, toys and ornaments, and when treated, for chemistry, and the grease extracted from them was useful for soap-making. Metal was more valuable; an 1836 edition of ‘Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal’ describes how ‘street-grubber[s]’ could be seen scraping away the dirt between the paving stones of non-macadamised roads, searching for horseshoe nails. Brass, copper and pewter was valued at about 4–5 pence per pound.

Mayhew’s report indicates that many who worked as rag-and-bone men did so after falling on hard times, and generally lived in squalor. Although they usually started work well before dawn, they were not immune to the public’s ire; in 1872 several rag-and-bone men in Westminster caused complaint when they emptied the contents of two dust trucks to search for rags, bones and paper, blocking people’s path. The rag-and-bone trade fell into decline though. A newspaper report of 1965 estimates that in London, only a ‘few hundred’ rag-and-bone men remained, possibly due to competition from more specialized trades such as corporation dustmen, and pressure from property developers to build on rag merchants’ premises. Despite the BBC’s popular ‘Steptoe and Son,’ which helped maintain the rag-and-bone man’s status in English folklore, by the 1980s they were mostly gone. Lately, rising scrap metal prices have prompted their return, although most drive vans, not horses, and announce their presence by megaphone, causing some members of the public to complain about the noise created.

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