The Politics of Trash: How Governments Used Corruption to Clean Cities, 1890–1929 (Cornell Univ. Press, 2023) by Patricia Strach of the University of Albany and Kathleen Sullivan of Ohio University explains how municipal trash collection solved odorous urban problems using nongovernmental and often unseemly means.
Strach and Sullivan tell a story of dirty politics and administrative innovation that made rapidly expanding American cities livable. When the efforts of sanitarians, engineers, and reformers failed, public officials turned to the tools of corruption as well as to gender and racial hierarchies.
Effective waste collection involves translating municipal imperatives into new habits in homes and private spaces. To change domestic habits, officials relied on gender hierarchy to make the women of the white, middle-class households in charge of sanitation.
When public and private trash cans overflowed, racial and ethnic prejudices were harnessed to single out scavengers, garbage collectors, and neighborhoods by race. These early informal efforts were slowly incorporated into formal administrative processes that created the public-private sanitation systems that prevail in most American cities today.
The Massachusetts Historical Society will host Strach and Sullivan for a virtual talk set for Monday, May 8th. This program will begin at 6 pm. Admission is $10 for in person attendance, free for MHS members and virtual attendance. For more information or to register, click here.
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