There is a mass of informative detail about mankind’s extraordinary combination of ingenuity and covetousness regarding material objects and substances, and about how changing obsessions have affected methods of disposal and retrieval. Victorians, with their fervent but sometimes ill-founded crusades against infection, were great ones for incinerators, which we now tend to regard as pollutant. The author neglects to mention, however, that it was moral ills our more distant ancestors were keen on expunging with fire, to the point of subjecting living human beings to it and thereby supposedly retrieving their immortal souls. She shows that the idea that enemies in war dug up graves to extract the lead from coffins to make shot was a tale revived in various conflicts. Satisfyingly, she identifies a cow-bridge in Lincolnshire made by a farmer from the rood-screen of a nearby church broken up at the Reformation, and she notes the risks posed to valuable documents every time a society gets obsessed with paper-saving (a feature of the Second World War).
She takes in the make-do-and-mend mentality of the second world war, and discusses why so much recycling work has traditionally fallen to women. Nowadays it has become more of a middle-class preoccupation, for those with the time to sort different kinds of paper and make special trips for their disposal. But there’s nothing worthy about Cockayne, and the way she embraces historical anecdote, social critique and personal reminiscence never seems ponderous.
Rummage is a lively study that contains countless examples of historical reuse. Wastepaper, it turns out, has seen a remarkable array of uses: from Victorian papier-mâché products (which included steamship pilasters and the working pianoforte made for the 1867 Paris International Exhibition) to the two million unsold Mills & Boon novels used in the construction of the M6 toll road. A common form of poetry between the 16th and 19th centuries, the “broadside ballad”, printed on a single sheet of cheap paper, was often put to use “lining pie dishes, absorbing dirt or binding books”. Just one in every 10,000 of these ballads has survived in its original form. Seventeenth- and 18th-century shopkeepers and servants would assess scrap paper to determine whether it had enough gluey content to seal food — if not, “Bumm foder” (lavatory paper) was always an option.
In this brilliantly original and deeply researched book, Emily Cockayne sets out to show how the meanings of material reuse zigzag wildly according to context. There is something honourable about aristocrats handing down the family silver; something worthy about a green-minded family rummaging through a car boot sale; something pitiable about a rough sleeper investigating the contents of a public rubbish bin... Cockayne’s book is much more than a lucky dip of secondhand anecdotes. With admirable thoroughness she has gone deep into the archives of such unglamorous bodies as the National Salvage Council and emerged with absolute gold. Indeed, colour emerges as one of the surprising themes of this shimmering book. While historians have long known that the Industrial Revolution produced shades and tones that had never been seen before, Cockayne does a wonderful job of parsing the formulae and finding a surprising amount of rubbish among the ingredients.