As an archaeologist specializing in historic artifacts, my reference library is packed with books on obscure subjects. One subject I have an outsized enjoyment of is trash.
Of course, I have a professional interest in what happens to the things we make, buy, use, and discard, since archaeologists use these things to learn about the cultures we study. But I’m also fascinated by our relationship with consumption and discard, and how ideas of what is trash changes over time. Each of the books below shines a light on this relationship.
(2001, University of Arizona Press) was the first major popular work on the subject. Originally published in 1992, the updated edition contains another decade worth of research, observations, and case studies. Rubbish was born out of the Garbology Project, a series of landfill excavations conducted in Tuscon beginning in the 1970s.
The authors explain the differences between trash, garbage, refuse, and rubbish (they’re not the same!), and challenge myths about waste, such as whether disposable diapers really make up the majority of landfill deposits.
(2005, University of Pittsburgh Press) is an updated edition of a 1981 classic. It details the history of waste collection and disposal in the United States, including the development of landfills and early reform measures.
Melosi, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Houston, was involved in the National Historic Landmark application for the Fresno Sanitary Landfill. His other excellent titles, including The Sanitary City and Effluent America focus on urban sanitation and environmental history.
(2015, Bloomsbury Press) is part of the Object Lessons series of short books on the hidden lives of ordinary things.
As an English professor, as opposed to a historian, Thill draws on classical thinkers and popular culture alike, from Socrates to Blade Runner, to illuminate the human relationship to trash. “Waste is every object, plus time,” he asserts.
For more from the Object Lessons series, including Shipping Container, Shopping Mall, and Sock, see: http://objectsobjectsobjects.com/
(2000, Holt) is probably the most accessible title on this list for the non-specialist.
Strasser is a professor of American history at the University of Delaware and has written several award-winning books on social history and consumer culture. Waste and Want focuses on how the United States came to be a disposable culture in the early 20th century, and what it was like before then.
Her other notable books are Never Done: A History of American Housework and Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market.
This blog was written by Doug Mengers.
Mr. Mengers is a Registered Professional Historian (DPPH) and Archaeologist (RPA) with 12 years of experience focused in Southern California, with a special interest in historical archaeology and the history of the San Diego Region. As PanGIS’s senior historian, he is well versed in California historical resources and the built environment.
He is an expert in the identification, recording, and evaluation of historic structures/objects, historic artifact identification, and conducting archival research on historic properties and neighborhoods and has conducted evaluations of properties eligible for listing on the National Register, California Register, and local registers of historic resources.