Garbologists find roots of modern waste by digging through Victorian-Era garbage

In the Victorian Era, the civilization made a permanent shift towards a throwaway society, and the production of waste only began to increase from this point in the timeline

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Victorian era Mineral bottles. Image source: Tom Licence
  • Garbology is the “study of a culture or community by analysis of its waste”
  • The Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, West London boasts a collection of 12,000 unique items like cartons, boxes, paper cups tins etc
  • The Victorian era also marked the rise of the packaging industry

East Anglia, a rural area north of London, became a place of historical interest for Tom Licence and his research team, What East Anglia Threw Away, early 2016, when a scavenging streak for Victorian Era trash gripped their minds. “We’re aware that there’s a dump close to the cottage, and that’s part of our interest, but also we’ve set up a little history group, and we’ve been working on the history of Castle Rising ever since”, says Sylvia Cooke, who came to East Anglia about 14 years ago.

“We are pioneering garbologists”, says Tom Licence with a friendly laugh. Garbology is the “study of a culture or community by analysis of its waste”. The Victorian Era, which spanned through the years of 1837 till 1901, witnessed a crucial shift of consumer patterns – with an increase in wealth and the Industrial Revolution, the civilization shifted from making things at home to buying them at grocery markets and shops. This era also marked the rise of the packaging industry.

As people began to gain awareness about germs and hygiene, they became distrustful of local vendors and grocers,some of whom added spurious ingredients to increase the weight of the product. A packaged product guaranteed it hadn’t been tampered with, and hence more trustworthy. Moreover, it also ensured that the manufacturers were able to design and control their own brand. The means of packaging then involved bottles and tins, or small containers which couldn’t be reused and hence found their way into what is now called as Victorian Era trash.

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The importance of collecting and preserving garbage from those olden days was cleverly identified by Robert Opie, a social historian, who founded the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, West London. The museum boasts a collection of 12,000 unique items like cartons, boxes, paper cups tins etc. which documents the progression of brands of some of the world’s most popular companies like Cadbury. The museum assumed a larger space recently to accommodate the growing interest. The colour on these packaging materials dim as war years are approached, The Guardian reports. “It’s a portal into your own past”, Robert Opie says.

Victorian Era
Dundee Marmalade tin containers. Image courtesy: Tom Licence

In the Victorian Era, the civilization made a permanent shift towards a throwaway society, and the production of waste only began to increase from this point in the timeline. Before this time, humans produced next to no waste at all. In large cities like London, there was a systematic disposal of waste, but in the rural areas like East Anglia, it wasn’t economical to supply ash carts to every household, so the people here would dig up pits in nearby areas and bury their waste there. This is one of the primary reasons why Tom Licence and his local volunteers targeted East Anglia.

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Tom Licence also has knowledge of similar findings all over the world. There have been people from California and India who show an interest in Garbology. A worker digging up the Earth for the construction of the Olympic Stadium in Brazil found packaging products that originated all the way from England. Licence believes this was the time when trade flourished, and the human carbon footprint made its stamp on the face of the Earth for the first time in history.

Discoveries made by garbologists in England have helped them analyse the living patterns of the civilizations in the British subcontinent, dating all the way back to the Victorian Era. If similar expeditions were to be carried out in all places over the world, it would help us comprehend a much better understanding of how humans led their lives in respective countries, and that would indeed be interesting to the historian palette.

-by Saurabh Bodas, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter:@saurabhbodas96

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  • I coined the word garbology to mean the study of the garbage of the rich and famous but you folks are doing a great job in retro-garbological pioneering. Congratulations!