Black-and-white photo of a maid pushing an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner in a bourgeois sitting room (1905).
Black-and-white photo of a maid pushing an old-fashioned vacuum cleaner in a bourgeois sitting room (1905).

Waste Not, Want Not

How Victorian techno-scientific discourses of waste entered the home

Dirt and waste haunted Victorian imagination and life. The rising rates of urbanisation and industrialisation led Victorian cities to struggle with the grim sanitary consequences of overpopulation and outdated infrastructure; population pressures, too, threatened Britain’s ability to fulfil its citizens’ needs. The answer to these problems was increasingly found in waste management: dealing productively with refuse would, it was imagined, prevent the danger of food scarcity, combat disease, improve morality and reform the poor. These ideas, combining social and techno-scientific concerns about the negative influences of waste – and its potential – constituted a network of discourses by and for middle-class men.

This project shifts the focus away from the public domain that concerned sanitary reformers and industrialists and towards the middle-class home as a domain conceptualised as a comfortable, safe and clean retreat from a hostile world. But what did it take to maintain the home’s status as a space free from the threatening waste cluttering urban streets and polluting rivers? This project aims to understand how the technical and scientific discourses of sanitarians, chemists, physicians and political economists seeped into household management guides, cookbooks and other instructional material centred around domestic tasks, thereby informing gendered household practices of waste management.

The project’s central aim is to position the middle-class home as another front along which the Victorian war against waste and dirt was waged. Identifying the private household as a key site of waste management – not just practically, but conceptually – will improve our understanding of the history of waste and contribute to the field of environmental history. 

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