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Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish

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Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish

Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish

Digging Up The Roots Of Modern Waste In Victorian-Era Rubbish

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/480268469/480335773" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A Dundee marmalade jar (left) is among items recently unearthed from a 19th century landfill behind a manor house in East Anglia. In Victorian England, people transitioned from making most things at home to buying them in stores. Rich Preston/NPR hide caption

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Rich Preston/NPR

A Dundee marmalade jar (left) is among items recently unearthed from a 19th century landfill behind a manor house in East Anglia. In Victorian England, people transitioned from making most things at home to buying them in stores.

Rich Preston/NPR

Tom Licence has a Ph.D., and he's a garbage man.

When you think of archaeology, you might think of Roman ruins, ancient Egypt or Indiana Jones. But Licence works in the field of "garbology." While some may dig deep down to get to the good stuff — ancient tombs, residences, bones — Licence looks at the top layers, which, where he lives in England, are filled with Victorian-era garbage.

Studying what people threw away 150 years ago, Licence is getting to the bottom of an important issue: how much we throw away, and how to change that.

"We dig up rubbish," says Licence, who is the director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies at the University of East Anglia. (His doctorate is in history.) "We're interested in what people threw away and how we became a throwaway society."

Nowadays, we're surrounded by so much packaging, you might think it has always been there. But 200 years ago, Licence says, the average household in Western society produced almost no garbage as we understand it today. Trash in the preindustrial era often consisted of broken ceramics, shells, animal bones and other items that couldn't be reused. Licence is investigating the era when all of that changed, during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 until 1901.

Tom Licence examines Victorian-era garbage behind a manor house in East Anglia, England. Lauren Frayer for NPR hide caption

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Lauren Frayer for NPR

Tom Licence examines Victorian-era garbage behind a manor house in East Anglia, England.

Lauren Frayer for NPR

Victoria happened to be in charge of the British Empire during a key transition: when people gradually went from making everything they needed at home to buying things at stores, in packages. It came with prosperity and the Industrial Revolution.

Evidence of that transition is what Licence was digging for when NPR caught up with him recently in the backyard of a manor house in East Anglia, north of London. In an enormous sand pit behind the house, he was examining trash from 1870 to 1910 — ceramic pots, tiny glass medicine bottles and even champagne bottles imported from France by the wealthy rector who lived there back then.

"In London and large cities, they had organized waste collection — an ash or dust cart, as they were called," Licence explains. "But in rural areas, they don't get [waste collection] until the 1950s. It was expensive to send a cart around isolated houses, and residents would much rather dig a hole in the corner of their property and dump it instead."

Local volunteers join in, unearthing broken window panes and marmalade jars.

"A lot of this stuff is things that our grandparents would have been very familiar with," says Derek Clark, a retiree lending a hand on the dig to learn more about the history of his neighborhood. "So, you know, it becomes real."

In the landfill, the food waste has long disintegrated. What's left is Victorian-era packaging.

"What we find in the 1880s and 1890s is that more and more packaged products are coming onto the market," Licence explains to his volunteers. "People have got more money in their pockets to spend, and rather than making things at home, they're buying it in small containers, bottles and tins, and those things really can't be reused, they can't be kept."

With more and more disposable, packaged goods, the average household's volume of garbage skyrocketed.

Packaging has become so important in our lives that it even has its own museum — the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising, in London's Notting Hill. Its chronological exhibits begin with the Victorian era.

In Victorian times, "We [began to] see this growing range of packaged products," says the museum's founder and director, Robert Opie. "As a society, we wanted more and more convenience. We wanted things to be faster, quicker, cheaper, better."

Packaging meant manufacturers could take control of their products and advertise them. Previously, grocers would sell things like soap, salt or cookies loose, then wrap them up in plain paper and price them according to weight.

London's Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising includes some 12,000 items, including these miscellaneous 19th century containers. Courtesy of the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising hide caption

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Courtesy of the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising

London's Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising includes some 12,000 items, including these miscellaneous 19th century containers.

Courtesy of the Museum of Brands, Packaging & Advertising

But during the Victoria era, people were starting to learn about germs and food safety. Hygiene became an obsession. Consumers could find products in packages that they trusted. It was the start of brand loyalty.

"Especially with food products, there was a great deal of concern because not only was the grocer able to add spurious ingredients to add to the weight [of a product], but everybody was concerned about their health," Opie explains. "So the solution was for manufacturers like Cadbury's, for example, to actually provide the product prewrapped, preweighed and therefore untouched by anyone else's hand. That was a fundamental change."

Opie's museum, which opened 32 years ago, began as a personal collection and recently moved into a bigger space to accommodate growing interest. People are fascinated by the brands and packaging of products their grandparents used, Opie says.

"This isn't 'retro,' though. This is the real stuff!" Opie says, surveying his collection of more than 12,000 items. "These are the originals."

Every day, more originals are being dug up as residents unearth the garbage their predecessors began burying in their backyards 150 years ago.

Licence has written a book called What the Victorians Threw Away, and his accompanying website includes a database of objects found in Victorian garbage dumps. People around the world can log on and compare notes on what they've found buried on their own property.

The reach of U.K.-made products from the Victorian era was vast — ending up across the British Empire and beyond.

"We had a chap from California who found some bottles in a pit that had been dug by gold pioneers in the 1850s, and recently someone's been in touch from India, too," Licence says. "One of the most interesting was an archaeologist in Brazil who's excavating a patch of land before they build the new Olympic stadium, and he's found packaging from 19th century products imported all the way from England. It's the origin of the carbon footprint, really."

Licence hopes his work can show people that humans are not hard-wired to create so much garbage. Waste is a relatively recent phenomenon, he says.

"Naturally, I think people want to conserve and reuse things — and that was pretty much what happened all through time, until about 1900, when we became a throwaway society, largely because we got swamped with all this packaging."

By digging it up, he hopes to convince us that our habits can be reversed.