This was the “rag and bone man,” scavenging town for cast off household items. The occupation might exist in some form in the states, but it was a novelty to me. So I watched with delight and fasciation as the van stopped next door. Two heavy white women, in dirt streaked tank tops and jeans a size too small, climbed down. The largest walked in pain, dragging her left leg behind her, but together they managed to heft the neighbor’s discarded exercise bike into the overstuffed boot. Then they carried on down the road, blasting the infernal recording, and leaving me, and only me in that party of Brits, enthralled.
For centuries, rag and bone men, or totters, have been scavenging cast off household items in towns throughout Britain and Europe. The name describes what, in the 19th century, they collected. Rags could be sold for up to three pence per pound (for white) and two pence per pound for colored cloth, to rag merchants or directly to rag paper makers. Bones, boiled to make soap and used for knife handles and other varied uses, could be sold for the same price. Metals, such a copper or pewter, were more valuable: about four to five pence per pound. A rag and bone man might expect six pence average daily wage in the 19th century, and while the trade has suffered in recent past, the high cost scrap iron has inspired a resurgence in the practice, which has never quite died away in northern towns near Manchester. How much these modern scavengers make? I don’t know. Not enough if they're working on a holiday, in such obvious pain. Was this a second job? A third? Alone, I might have asked. Instead, I stood watching behind a fence, making notes, probably judgments too; thinking about those women, their work, their lives, long after the blue van rounded the bend and the sound faded away.
That other Rag and Bone Man:
If you’re need soulful sound track to accompany your day, here's Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Rory Graham, from Uckfield, East Sussex.