History shows us how to get into the habit of using old objects

The writer is an associate professor of modern history at the University of East Anglia, and author of ‘rummage: A story of the things we reused, recycled and refused to let go’

Creating a circular economy requires a cultural shift. Currently, the problem is related to the appearance of a virtuous skill in parsimony. Many of us have “that friend” who loves us to guess how much they paid for something desirable at a charity shop. But if they have good intentions, someone else’s market rarely inspires joy.

While such boasting may indicate how far we have come in rejecting conspicuous consumption, reuse and recycling are nothing new. If we look to the past, where reuse was common, we could make reuse mundane and everyday again. This would require a change in attitude towards discarded objects, a change in our material culture.

The recirculation of cast-offs used to be a more private enterprise. Items were sold directly to bottle and rag dealers, or to merchants at marine stores such as the Dickensian Krook in Dark house. Then, as material availability increased for the wealthy in the 19th century, and for everyone in the 20th century, fewer things were sold.

Those who have a lot have little incentive to reuse. When the glycerine ran out in 1918, even Yorkshire residents, known for their savings, needed a boost to exchange rubbish for cash. More recently, local authority curbside collection programs have taken us further away from the habit of processing materials.

In the past, much of the hardware investment consisted of ongoing repairs – literally stitches in time. Moth holes were darned, often “invisibly,” by nimble fingers.

Modern clothing company Toast, aware of its customers’ desire to extend the life of fine garments, now offers take-back services in the UK. Not always invisible, these repairs can incorporate inventive additions to enhance the original garment while adding new layers of ownership. He also launched a clothing swap program.

The popularity of the BBC television series The repair shop reveals the appeal of stories that combine objects and emotions: repairing one prolongs the other. The next step is to develop our own repair skills, to invest in the longevity of the equipment. It would be nice to have “that friend” who loves us to guess the things they fixed.

A strand of our culture associates spiritual purity with the absence of materials, but Marie Kondo’s approach of prioritizing objects that bring joy is necessarily wasteful. Minimalism is a luxury that we offer ourselves too easily: perhaps we should keep materials that could be cheerfully transformed later. By becoming skilled recyclers — or actors in a circular economy — we can revive and cultivate skills.

The DIY craze in the 20th century saw sheds fill with old jam jars full of DIY scraps. Repair needs dedicated workspaces and storage for tools, so modern tenants are often denied the optimism of repair – like slum dwellers excluded from model buildings in Victorian London because they were not allowed to store supplies. Restrictive leases limit reuse: a circular economy needs reforms in the rental market.

Braderie, invented at the end of the 19th century, was significant in its difference from industrial and specialized reuse. They were a way for communities to raise funds while recirculating goods locally. During some sales, the organizers prevented junk dealers from snatching up bargains, “so that the impecunious would not be made of a good thing” by “prettier people who are not in such bad shape”. The reports highlighted the “mixed odds and ends” on sale. These are terms we should return to: bits and bobs, odds and soss. Reconceptualizing the “second hand” in the modern economy takes us beyond the world of finished, whole objects.

In the mid-19th century, cork dust was rolled into a rubber base (incorporating waste material) to make kamptulicon, a durable floor covering. When replaced with linoleum, the old kamptulicon was cut into strong cutting boards.

The first plastics, Xylonite and Parkesine, repurposed waste from coal gasification used in town gas, along with old rags and paper. Victorian homes were repurposed in substantial ways: Beneath the papier-mâché ceilings and cornices hung flocked wallpapers, made from linen rags and waste (“mung”) wool dyed with sous -products of coal gasification and glued in place with animal waste.

Modern life is object-centered. Citizens of the past, used to making their own things, needed to source materials and developed habits of gathering, most obviously during wars and times of austerity. Our ancestors would be shocked by modern quilt makers buying new fabrics to cut into scraps.

Emilie Cockayne

Emilie Cockayne

Recently I was in Norwich Cathedral. The baptismal font is a repurposed vessel from a Rowntrees Chocolate Factory which closed in 1994, connecting local history with new members of the community.

Thinking about the potential of materials, rather than finished objects, is thinking about the future. It provides the opportunity to develop new skills, helps protect the environment, and promotes the continuous circulation we see in nature. It’s a habit we would all do well to resume.

About Rhonda Lee

Check Also

UNODC supports community treatment for people who use drugs in Kachin IDP camps and surrounding communities – Myanmar

UNODC in Myanmar aims to prevent drug abuse, improve access to community-based drug treatment and …