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The Jewish Woman Who Invented Recycling

Salvaging rags, scrap metal, and discarded junk, Jewish immigrants helped create a whole industry

Jenna Weissman Joselit
October 18, 2019
Courtesy Jewish Museum of the American West
Flora Spiegelberg Courtesy Jewish Museum of the American West
Courtesy Jewish Museum of the American West
Flora Spiegelberg Courtesy Jewish Museum of the American West

Flora Spiegelberg of 67 Riverside Drive, New York, New York, had a grand idea: What if garbage cans and carts were covered with a lid rather than left open to the elements and urban refuse was incinerated rather than dumped into the Hudson River or deposited in poor neighborhoods? Determined to see her pre-WWI hometown shine, Spiegelberg buttonholed municipal officials, wrote numerous letters to the editor of The New York Times, and encouraged Thomas Edison to produce and distribute a film titled The Fly: A Menace to Public Health.

Garbage Can Flora,” as she came to be known, also made common cause with civic-minded women’s groups engaged in the business of municipal housekeeping. Sanitation, she believed, was women’s work. “The city clean—sanitary, dustless, odorless and flyless—should be the slogan of women,” Spiegelberg declared in 1912, urging them to join her in agitating for modern forms of waste disposal.

Having lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for several decades, where her husband, “Handsome Willi,” was mayor, Spiegelberg relocated to New York in 1889 in search of a fuller Jewish life for her family. She seems to have found it, becoming an active member of Temple Emanu-El and a founder of its sisterhood. Spiegelberg also found smelly streets, too many flies, and too few citizens mindful of the potential health problems that a subpar system of waste disposal posed to their well-being.

Alarmed by the prospect that the Empire City might well be on its way to becoming “worse than Cairo,” she took up the cudgels in defense of street cleaning and effective waste disposal, even going so far as to gift New York with its very first covered garbage truck.

Fortunately for the city’s residents, Spiegelberg’s wasn’t a lone voice crying in the wilderness. She had allies, especially among the leaders and staff of the United Hebrew Charities, New York’s preeminent Jewish social welfare agency of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Attuned to the problems of modern urban life, its Industrial Department sought to engineer a new approach to waste removal—and charitable giving—by encouraging middle-class Jewish New Yorkers to donate rather than cast off their unwanted things.

“Save Your Waste for the Poor. Do Charity Without Expense to You,” it cheered, distributing throughout the city thousands of cloth bags into which a wide range of spurned or newly obsolescent domestic objects were to be placed. Once the bags were filled to the brim, a representative of the United Hebrew Charities was summoned by post or phone—Spring 1117 was the number—to collect them, setting in motion a process that converted trash into cash. The big idea, it explained, was to utilize our “concentrative [sic] methods of collection and disposal to be able to realize large sums of money to be devoted exclusively for constructive and immediate relief.”

The Jewish charity modeled itself in part after the Salvation Army and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, two well-organized relief organizations of the late 19th century that not only accepted donations of used goods, but by hiring the down-and-out to repair and sort them, gave both a new lease on life. Central to their charitable mission was the transformation of people and waste into productive elements.

The United Hebrew Charities also liked to stress the Jewish antecedents of efficient waste removal by linking modern-day practices to the age-old Jewish tradition of cleaning the house in preparation for Passover. “For centuries, the Jews have always had a regular ‘clean-up week’ before the spring festival of Passover, thus setting a splendid example of sanitation for future health boards long before such agencies of health and cleanliness were thought of,” the charitable agency boasted in 1914.

Do-gooders like Spiegelberg and the United Hebrew Charities staff weren’t the only ones invested in waste disposal, as Scrap Yard, a lively and compelling exhibition opening later this month at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, makes clear. A significant number of people at the margins of society made a living out of salvaging trash and turning it into something else: rags into paper, metal bits into steel. It didn’t take much at first—just a sack—to get started as a junkman, a ragpicker, a scrapper, or an “old clo’ man.” The capital investment was nil. The requisite physical investment, though, was something else again, calling for a sturdy constitution, a strong nose capable of tolerating odiferous smells, and a thick skin with which to withstand the social disdain that came with the job.

Many were Jewish immigrants. Surely it’s not for nothing that when Sydney Taylor published All-of-a-Kind Family, her beloved account of a Jewish immigrant family, she cast the papa as the proprietor of a junkshop whose “damp, musty, basementy” smell appealed to his young daughters. For them, a visit to the store with its stacks of old newspapers, “towering piles” of metallic odds and ends, and heaps of rags made for “great fun.”

For Papa and his real-life associates, scavenging and salvaging was no picnic. It was a livelihood, a business that grew increasingly more complex as the pace of urbanization and industrialization quickened, generating more and more trash. By the early 20th century, waste removal had assumed the earmarks of a profession, with its own trade organizations and a weekly publication, the Waste Trade Journal, which served both as a clearinghouse of information and an expression of self-respect.

Open any issue and alongside a stunning array, a veritable explosion, of advertisements for industrial products—baling presses and giant portable shears, magnetic separators and belted hoists—what leaps off the page is the equally stunning number of Jewish family concerns: Chicago in 1907 was home to R. Rosenberg & Sons, dealers in woolen and cotton rags; St. Louis to Jos. Greenspon’s Sons, dealers in secondhand pipes. Cincinnati had the Moskowitz Bros., whose stock-in-trade was scrap iron and metals, while Baltimore lay claim to a significant number of Jewish scrappers, among them R. Goldstein & Son, which specialized in rags, rubber, and metals, and Hettleman, Burstein & Co., which processed cotton waste.

Scrap Yard salutes the often unheralded and underappreciated role that Jewish immigrants and their descendants—all those “& Sons”—played in what is now euphemistically, and approvingly, called “recycling.” Designed to evoke a working scrap yard, the show offers a behind-the scenes-look at a safe remove, taking visitors through the various stages of collection, sifting and sorting, weighing and deconstruction that constitute the industry, then, as now. What most of us see glancingly from the window of a passing car or train turns out to be a complex ecosystem, deserving of close consideration and even contemplation. The galleries also showcase the impact of technology on the scrap business, documenting how the latter grew mightily in scale and complexity, from the taking apart of a garment to the taking apart of a ship.

The salvage industry’s impact on American popular culture was equally far-reaching, generating popular songs such as Fat Waller’s “Cash for Your Trash” and a Folkways recording of “The Sounds of the Junk Yard,” both of which can be heard within the precincts of the museum. A newsreel in which an old clothes man makes the rounds, giving voice to the piercing cry of “old clo, old clo” is also on view, making for an experience that is both aural and visual.

As much about history, especially American Jewish history, as it is about the economics of waste disposal, the exhibition, explains the museum’s director, Marvin Pinkert, the grandchild of two Chicago scrap dealers, is an exercise in redemption. Belatedly giving the Jewish scrappers of earlier generations their due, Scrap Yard also seeks to awaken our environmental consciousness as well as our curiosity about the afterlife of things. In each instance, adds Tracie Guy-Decker, the museum’s deputy director, Scrap Yard might best be construed as the story of multiple transformations: of a once marginal business into a global industry, of wastefulness into usefulness, and of immigrants into Americans.

Flora Spiegelberg must be smiling.


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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.