I can't précis all of the processes described in La Hotte without writing a pamphlet, rather than a blog post, so I am going to concentrate on bones.
|fan parts from recovered bone|
The chiffonnier cleaned off any remnants of fat and meat to be sold off; this fat was made into tallow candles and what was known as 'economical butter' ie, the kind of margarine you got in those days, though Paulian calls this 'inferior margarine', so there must have been a superior kind.
Getting down to the bones now; it is no longer possible for us to visit the splendid factory of Messieurs Dupont and Co at Beauvais, but these gentlemen employed more than fifteen hundred workers and who had outlets in Paris and branches in London, New York, Montreal and even Melbourne. Paulian did, and waxed enthusiastic about the process.
When the bones arrived at Dupont and Co they were boiled clean of all fat residues and then further cleaned with benzine; finally bleached in the sun. Then they were made into the desirable craft objects I have mentioned above.
|lathe for cutting out buttons|
|machine for making holes in buttons|
|Women sorting bones|
Nowadays we think we are doing well if we can achieve a recycling rate of 50%, but in those days, in Europe (for the chiffonniers had their equivalents everywhere, as they do nowadays) what was left behind was mainly ash (which also had its use). The mesh of hair that the chiffonnier picked out of the rubbish was used to make switches for the same ladies to pin onto their heads, or else to make sieves for straining fruit juice. Rags were made into fine-quality paper, or shredded, sometimes to make new luxury fibres, sometimes to make felt (for hats, mainly) or shoddy, which is still used for mattresses.
It could be easily done, of course; I am old enough to have been given bottles to take back to the shop, the bribe being, I got the deposit for extra pocket-money. Old tins, animal skins; there was a use for everything. Even snail shells. Fat from the sewers was reprocessed into soap; animals who drowned there were made into soap and glycerine. The chiffonniers were heroes of recycling and the 'progress' of twentieth-century municipal disposal systems that succeeded them meant that recycling levels plummeted (though a certain amount of reclamation, or totting, was still carried out by dustmen on their own account).
During the period when the chiffonniers were most active, the authorities made several attempts to suppress them or limit their numbers. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries they were seen as potential criminals - out at night with hooks, that could break into houses, baskets to stash the swag, and lanterns to case the joint with? This was the reason for the first lot of ID discs. The factory owners, resenting the money they had to pay them - three francs per chiffonnier per day, which added up to a considerable sum - proposed that all wastes should be municipally collected, sorted, and delivered to them. Their profits thus increased, they would pay the municipality a portion of the profit. The chiffonniers, having no more source of income, would have to seek (badly-paid) employment with the municipality. It is easy to see the logic of turbo-capitalism at work; you get taxpayers to subsidise you. However, the Prefecture of the Seine were enthusiastic about the idea - the figures clearly added up as far as they were concerned. The Prefect of Police opposed it, pointing out the social costs of increased vagrancy (chiffonniers who couldn't or wouldn't become employees) and of unrest fomented by angry chiffonniers, who preferred their independence.
The chiffonniers mounted a major PR campaign, enlisting journalists and politicians, and won. All the same, there was a law passed in 1884 that obliged householders to put their refuse into bins, and the chiffonniers found themselves racing the municipal collectors for the bins' contents. These poubelles, named after the Prefect of the Seine who introduced an earlier version, were cumbersome and difficult to lift, also had no lids, so they would have stunk and attracted vermin just as much as heaps of refuse on the street. Here is a rather Heath Robinson apparatus for loading them into the collection vehicles. I can almost hear the Paris street echoing to the crash of the dropped poubelle, and the curses of the collectors who would have to put all the refuse back into it, not to mention the one who would be hopping on one leg, and maybe be taken off to hospital because it had fallen on his foot.
An interviewer once asked my husband: 'Isn't it disgusting to see waste as a resource?' Clearly a lot of people think so, even to the point of finding it distasteful to separate their own waste into different receptacles. Put it away with your eyes shut and forget about it, and let someone take it away and never see it again. No doubt the Parisians of Paulian's time thought the same way, and they weren't aware, till he published it, that their wastes often did come back to them, looking handsome and desirable in shop windows, too. But if you find waste recovery and re-use disgusting - is it really cleaner to dump refuse into more and more holes in the ground, which may cause emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and will be a colossal waste of the earth's shrinking land-space and resources?