Talk about a cycle! Imagine a profession that may have begun as soon as humans began to live together in groups. That became critical as people formed larger communities during the Middle Ages (500 AD – 1500 AD). That lost favor for a minute in the modern world. But gained new fans in the 20th and 21st centuries. Recycling and people go together. 

Recycling is not new, but it has morphed quite a bit over a few thousand years. They were the ones who really got their hands dirty, so they weren’t welcomed in good homes. But they were essential to keeping homes and communities clean and uncluttered.  

And now, turns out, they always had the right idea.  

What’s in a name? 

It wasn’t a government sponsored occupation, so those early recyclers made their own hours and rules and referred to in ways that could be derogatory or a bit mysterious. Some of the titles were relatively innocuous and descriptive. Others reflected the public’s view of anyone who would dirty their hands picking up trash.  

  • Rag and bone man, rag man, rag picker, old clothes man 
  • Junk man, junk/rag dealer 
  • Totter
  • Bone grubber, bone picker 
  • Rat catcher* 
  • Mudlarks 

*Apparently there was an actual man named Jack Black who had the dubious but apparently necessary title of Her Majesty’s Rat Catcher for the Queen of England! 

The need for rag men and the titles are now mostly obsolete except for some enterprising individuals or businesses. The concept at least has become popular with everyone from a European singer/songwriter named Rag’n’Bone Man to an upscale casual clothing line using Rag Man in the title. There were also popular TV shows both in the U.K. and the U.S. that featured father and son junk dealers.  

A short history of recycling 

Thanks to an article by Recycle Coach, it’s estimated that recycling can be traced back to 500 BCE (Before Common Era) when a waste disposal system was established in Athens, Greece. But it’s probable that earlier societies also had systems for recycling or disposing of unwanted or unusable items. (More to come in this series!) 

Fast forward to the 20th century when the first aluminum recycling plant opened in 1904.  

In the 1930’s everyone did their part for the war effort by repurposing or recycling everything from paper and clothing to metal. This era popularized a saying that summed up the necessity of recycling in that time period – ‘use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.’ 

Why recycle? 

At many points in history, recycling was a way of life. Families had no other option if they didn’t want to live like an episode of “Hoarders.”  


Residents of Athens probably didn’t need much encouragement to comply with the mandate of disposing of trash at least one mile from the city. As communities got bigger, that became an urgent issue.  


Homemade items had sentimental value and were cherished as heirlooms that remained in families for generations. Just watch almost any episode of Antiques Roadshow 

However, we’ve entered another cycle of recycling as those “heirlooms” aren’t valued as much as they used to be and need to be re-purposed or disposed of. (See our previous article on this issue – What a Pandemic Taught Us About Heirlooms, Clutter, and Junk.) 


Prior to the rise of manufacturing and modern day consumerism, many things were crafted by specialized businesses (seamstresses/tailors, wainwrights, etc.) or homemade out of necessity.  

Societies were generally less of a throw-away culture than today. Until the rise of dumps, there was no general place to throw anything away, so things were given to rag men or disposed of on the homestead. The remains of home dumps are still visible in many rural locations. Skeletons of farm equipment and general household junk are relegated to a specific area of the property or are left wherever they fell.  

Families were often bigger (more hands needed to work the farm, frequently no option for birth control, loss of children) so clothes especially were handed down from child to child.  

Source of income 

Early junk recyclers most likely had no other choice of occupation whether through misfortune of birth or life circumstances. Rag men usually didn’t get rich from selling bits of cloth or cast off household items. But there was a market for many of the items sold or given to them by families. They sold whatever they could to merchants who re-used it as best they could or bartered with others for items they needed. 

The next iteration of recycling 

The Rag and Bone Man may have been replaced but the concept lives on. Every day, we read of companies who are doing amazing things to recycle unwanted items. If we keep doing that, maybe someday we’ll have this recycling business under control. 

If you’re as interested in recycling as we are, check back with us each month to read more about the quirks, history, and future of recycling.