Scrapping in the Streets

Historian Carl Zimring sits down with host Brian Balogh to discuss the booming 19th-century trade in scrap metal.

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BRIAN: We’ll begin with a story from the late 19th century, when American cities were awash in trash. A lot of that trash was leftover metal. It came from the steel production that had powered the railroad boom and the industrial manufacturing that was taking off all over the country.


By the 1880s, big companies like Carnegie Steel began to realize that recycling those metals was much cheaper than mining virgin ore. And their new demand for recycled steel gave rise to a new line of work, collecting scrap metal that would ultimately make its way back to those giant corporations. I sat down with historian Carl Zimring to talk about how this scrap trade really worked.


CARL ZIMRING: These are usually one person businesses. Maybe two or three working together. They might just be walking through the streets with a sack on their back.


And they’re just going around and looking. Maybe be in demolition sites. They may be knocking on doors and saying pardon me, do you have any old pots and pans? I’d be willing to buy them for a nickel. And literally thousands of such businesses sprang up between the 1880s and World War I all across the United States.


BRIAN: Another form of putting the peddler to the metal.


CARL ZIMRING: Oh geez. That is an absolutely appropriate pun, that I’m unfortunately going to remember until I go to my grave.


BRIAN: [LAUGHS] Now Zimring says that scrap dealing proved especially appealing to one ethnic group– Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Zimring, himself descended from immigrant Jews, told me that he got interested in this history after a conversation with his grandfather.


CARL ZIMRING: His family came to the United States because a scrap dealer in Waterloo, Iowa– very small town Iowa– paid my great-grandfather’s fare to come over from Austria in 1904 to come to rural Iowa and go from farm to farm collecting scrap metal that would then be sold to this person’s scrap yard. And as I started talking to more people who happened to be Jewish, I started to learn that there’s this narrative that this is a Jewish industry.


I started looking through the historical record in the trade literature. By the 1920 census, I found that people of Jewish heritage– who made up a tiny minority of the general population of the country– made up over half of all the individuals enumerated as working within the scrap trade. And that could be everyone from small peddlers to large brokers. But it shows that well over the representation in the general population, Jews are working in scrap.


BRIAN: And why did Jewish immigrants corner the market on scrap metal?


CARL ZIMRING: There are a few related reasons. One involves simple timing. That the era of mass migration of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe coincides with the rise in demand for scrap iron and metal. But that’s only part of the story, because clearly this is the same time as mass migration from Southern Europe, and also from Eastern Europeans who weren’t Jewish as well. And yet their participation in scrap metal is at far lower numbers.


There’s a sense from a lot of the people whose stories were later put in oral histories that scrap metal offered Jews the possibility of starting one’s own business without too much money involved. And scrap metal also afforded Jews the possibility of practicing their own religion, if they were religious, without discrimination from an employer who say, would not want them to take off early Friday for the Sabbath.


BRIAN: I see. If they were working on their own, no one was going to worry if they knocked off at four in the afternoon on Friday.


CARL ZIMRING: Precisely.


BRIAN: Now there’s a long tradition of associating Americans who do dirty work with being dirty themselves. Did this happen to these scrap metal dealers?


CARL ZIMRING: This was a problem as soon as the industry became a large industry. And I would argue this remains a problem in scrap recycling in the 21st century.


By the turn of the 20th century, there’s a fairly large trade in scrap metal. And there are many different groups who are concerned about the dirty people– be they unsanitary or unethical– doing the work. Progressive reformers such as Jane Addams were very concerned about scrap peddlers in urban neighborhoods going from door to door, interacting with children, exposing children to say, rusted, jagged metal. But also encouraging children to go into abandoned homes or construction sites and stealing pipes or other things.


BRIAN: So these would be kids who were working for these scrap metal peddlers.


CARL ZIMRING: Absolutely. It’s very much the stereotype of Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as expressed in early 20th century American life.


BRIAN: Huh. I see.


CARL ZIMRING: And so progressive reformers began campaigns to rid residential neighborhoods of “the moral menace to juveniles,” as it was described many times. The other people who considered scrap dealers potentially dirty were their customers, the iron and steel producers.


A lot of professional trade magazines had allegations of fraud being put over on reputable iron businesses by these nefarious and oftentimes– the language is used– “foreign” scrap dealers, who were low on the level of ethics and morals. And a lot of the time, the discussion was you have to worry about doing business with these people because they are Jews.


There is literature from iron forge businesses that use explicitly Jewish identity as a synonym for being a fraud, a shyster. And that definitely had a very negative effect on the industry’s perception in mainstream America.


BRIAN: It seems though that a lot of these immigrants were damned if they did or damned if they didn’t. I mean, they’re pursuing an opportunity. Very American, very entrepreneurial. But the very fact that they’re pursuing these opportunities in relationship to something considered dirty means that they’re tarred with this discrimination.


CARL ZIMRING: Yes, and that’s despite the fact that a few could make a lot of money doing this. And in fact, what we see happening after the 1930s and 1940s is those businesses which are successful, a few of them are passed from generation to generation. But many dealers complain that their children who grow up with some money do not follow into the business and instead work in less dirty occupations, oftentimes going to law school and instead of then coming back to run the firm, working in corporate law for someone else.


BRIAN: Some would consider that dirtier. But I understand the transition.






BRIAN: Carl Zimring is a historian at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He’s the author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America.