Sunday, 23 February 2014


Last month I posted about the chiffonniers, the rag-pickers (or informal recyclers) of Paris and their lives: this month I am going to describe some of the processes by which the waste materials they collected became treasure, by which Louis Paulian, who documented these things in his La Hotte du Chiffonnier, meant usable items that could be sold for good money. Most of the money thus earned enriched the middlemen, of course, the humble collectors remaining at the bottom of the heap - and yet, there was always the possibility that they might move up the hierarchy and get as rich as old Harmon in Our Mutual Friend.
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
This handy diagram of the grinning cow is about the uses for the bones inside her, rather than the more familiar diagram of beef cuts, which it is assumed have been already taken, either for human or dog consumption depending on the animal's age. So: the omoplate or chuck-steak bone will be used to make buttons. The humerus is used for buttons and objets de tabletterie, which could be things like dice and counters for games. The radius is used for more tabletterie, also brush-handles - other uses for the bones include parts of fans and knife handles. So: your treasured antique fan or bone-handled knives quite possibly came from someone's thrown-out Sunday roast 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.
Toothbrushes were another product, but buttons were perhaps the most important bone product. Machine-cut and carved into shape, they were then polished on a lathe; another machine pierced the holes in them.
lathe for cutting out buttons
As far as brushes and knife-handles went, France was not very good at conserving the large bones that were necessary to produce them, since French butchers tended to cut them up before selling them to customers. It was left to Britain, America and Australia, with their tradition of giant roasts, to supply objects made from these bones; though one praiseworthy butcher, the Maison Duval in Paris, boned its joints and thus was able to to keep the tibias and humeruses (or humera?) intact and sell them to Dupont and their competitors.
machine for making holes in buttons

Women sorting bones
The bones that were burned gave three products; fat, gelatine or glue, and noir animal, or animal blacking, which was used for pigments and black polish. Phosphorus was also obtained from animal bones, also from the trimmings when the bones were worked, and used mainly as fertiliser in agriculture. Tiny chips of bone were burned in a closed flask, treated with potassium carbonate, burned again, then cooled and washed with warm water to produce a liquid from which Prussian Blue was produced, for paints and printing.
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.
fabric-shredding machine
The old red trousers of French Zouave soldiers were felted and sold to Near Easterners, who made colourful peasant hats out of them. Used paper, among other things, was made into ceiling-mouldings. Glass bottles were re-used (the chiffonniers were expert in knowing which factories to sell them back to) as milk-bottles used to be, which is by far the most energy-efficient way of recycling glass, only nowadays the manufacturers don't want to have the bother of paying for old bottles.
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?


Marjorie said...


Dianne Hofmeyr said...

What an absolutely wonderful post Leslie. I'll have to go back to Part I which I missed. I love the idea of something being re-used in a different life.

In China the emperors and people of the Chinese courts wore vests or undergarments made of tiny tubes of threaded bamboo sewn into diamond shapes. The vest were to keep the air circulating under their heavy silk garments rather like the old airtex vests we once saw. Very soon Chinese labourers adopted the thrown out vests to wear as their sole upper clothing as they worked the fields... the same bamboo tops one often sees in photographs of people working the land. I bought one in Hong Kong a long long time ago. I don't work the fields in it... its such a thing of beauty that it hangs on a wall.

Leslie Wilson said...

Gosh, I didn't know that, Dianne. How very interesting! But of course, that was another part of the circular economy, and still is, in fact; ie, the old clothes shops, which have now morphed into charity shops in the UK. However, when I was in Zabrze, my mother's place of birth, a few years ago, I remember seeing shops selling British used clothes there. There has been a lot of interest among designers in the past few years in re-using clothes, re-working them, etc. Nowadays people throw out good clothes, believe it or not, because a button has fallen off, and they don't know how to sew a new one on. My husband and I went to a very interesting exhibition on the theme of clothing recycling in London a few years ago - and there was a film, too, of workers in India, where huge amounts of British clothes end up, and the people were saying things like: 'The people in England must be so rich, that they can afford to throw clothes away like that. They wear them once, and then go to buy new ones.'

Carol Drinkwater said...

This is absolutely fascinating, Leslie. I should be working! Thank you.