Who Invented the Trash Can?

Posted by Allen Czermak on

The Trash Can: What would be the correct definition of this most important receptacle for garbage? You might be surprised with the multiple answers there are to this simple question. In the next paragraphs we will explore both the history of the trash can and reveal some remarkably interesting trash receptacles that we have come across. For example, is a trash receptacle defined as an actual can or can it be a hole in the ground? The use of the words, trash can, in this article can be either indoor or outdoor.

Trash Can Archaeology

Archaeologists find out fascinating information from digging up trash and the bins that hold them. Yes, even thousands of years ago, civilizations developed receptacles for their trash. No, their trash was not like ours today, it was quite different. Along with earthenware dishes and other non-disposables, the one thing that they did not have was lots of paper and plastic waste.

Many teachers are taking their students to a new level of historical learning. The study of trash can archaeology is the study of a civilization through their trash. Many secrets of ancient civilizations are uncovered through their trash sometimes more revealing than valuable items that are better protected.

According to the history of trash cans, the Romans, in 200 AD, designed the first official sanitation organization. Since their population was growing rapidly, they instructed two men to walk along the streets picking up garbage and then tossing into a wagon which transferred the trash to a far-out site. This new policy was instituted to prevent citizens from throwing their trash onto the streets.

In the year,1350, the British government passed a law forbidding the tossing of garbage at the front of the house. This law could not be enforced properly, and citizens continued to throw their trash on their front lawns or burn it outside. Three years later, King Edward III decreed that rakers had to rake up the garbage from both alleys and streets once a week. They loaded the garbage onto carts and brought it to the Fleet or Thames Rivers and dumped the garbage there. These rakers were the first garbage-men.

Around 1757, Ben Franklin began the first street cleaning service in America and urged people to dig holes to dispose of their garbage. Is a garbage pit considering a garbage can? Trash dumping was popular in America as well, until 1864, when health officials connected the spread of Yellow Fever in Memphis, Tennessee with the massive garbage dumping situation throughout the city. Residents were forced to hall their garbage to the outskirts of their towns with laws passed to enforce this new way of garbage disposal.

In the time of the Purim story which took place in Persia, Haman’s wife dumped out the garbage on Haman mistaking him for Mordechai, her husband’s arch enemy. Now we can understand that it is not so strange to read that garbage was dumped out of a window, that was their exact method of garbage disposal at that time in history. The garbage caused a terrible smell encouraging rats and other rodents. The Black Plague was spread through garbage on the streets and contaminated water supply.

In early human history, garbage was quite different from the garbage situation of today. Their trash consisted mostly of wood, bones, and ash from fires. Occasionally there was waste from vegetables but most of the edible portions were used to feed the animals and the rest was buried in the ground to self-decompose. Since these civilizations refurbished and reused, archaeologists find very minute amounts of actual garbage, like broken tools and pottery.

When Did the Garbage Bin First Appear in Modern History?

In England, in 1875 the first garbage receptacle was introduced. This container was used for the ashes of burnt garbage. On a weekly basis this receptacle was emptied, and each resident was charged a fee regardless if their bin was empty or full. It took ten years for the United States to catch up to England. New York City developed a waste management system in 1914, which collected incinerated garbage by horse-drawn carts. There were some mistakes made until incinerators became operational throughout the United States and Canada.

Soon instead of each household having to burn their own garbage, horse-drawn carts would pick up the garbage and transport it to several hundred incinerators nationwide. When motor cars came on the scene, the horse drawn carts were replaced with motorized machines.

In Paris, France, the establishment of the “Poubelle Law”, in 1883, called for the use of closed disposal waste containers. Daily disposal of waste became the law. Eugene Poubelle, a Paris government official, signed into law the ordinance that any property owner must provide each of his tenants with three vessels with covers to collect garbage. Poubelle might well have been the first recycler in history to require citizens to separate garbage by types. The first container was for green waste (stuff that would rot). The second container was for paper and cloth and third receptacle was for pottery, glass, and oyster shells.

Do You Recall the Very Popular Book & Movie Classic, Cheaper by The Dozen?

Cheaper by the Dozen centers around a factual family with twelve children and two very efficient parents. In the 1920’s, the mom, Liliian Moller Gilbreth, had some particularly good reasons to improve the expediency and the practicality of basic household items. A psychology major in college, she, and her husband Frank, worked as business partners as well as personal partners at home to solve common household and workplace problems.

The book tells the story of time and motion study and efficiency experts Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and their children as they reside in Montclair, New Jersey, for many years. Lillian Gilbreth was described in the 1940's as "a genius in the art of living".

"The best-selling biographical novel was composed by two of the children, who wrote about their childhoods. Gilbreth's home doubled as a sort of real-world laboratory that tested her and her husband Frank's ideas about education and efficiency".

"The title comes from one of Frank Sr.'s favorite jokes: it often happened that when he and his family were out driving and stopped at a red light, a pedestrian would ask, "Hey, Mister! How come you got so many kids?" Gilbreth would pretend to ponder the question carefully, and then, just as the light turned green, would say, "Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know", and drive off”.

Mrs. Gilbreth owned patents on many devices, including the step-on-lid trash can. We all are familiar with this type of trash can which is still popular today. This trash can has a pedal on the bottom and when pressed by a foot opens the lid, so no one must touch the lid manually. (Mrs. Gilbreth also invented the electric food mixer).

First Plastic Garbage Can

The garbage cans in the 1950’s were made from metal. After a short time, these cans tended to get rusty and were noisy too as they were dragged from the curbs to the house. Charles Harrison, who died in 2018, is called the father of the plastic garbage can. Harrison was an African- American industrial product designer who worked for Sears. He was more famous for the invention of the View-Master for children in which you look through and see pictures in 3-D. Harrison downplayed this invention and considered his invention of the plastic garbage can as much more significant. He set out to make a more durable, easier to drag plastic garbage can on wheels and succeeded beyond all expectations. Harrison is noted to have had dyslexia, therefore he tried to make his products instinctive and spontaneous so that people would not have to struggle with directions. Sears was reluctant to hire Harrison; until he proved himself with several different inventions including the see-through measuring cup, the riding lawn mower, the Dial-O-Matic food slicer and the cordless shaver.

Sears was determined to test Harrison's breakthrough plastic garbage can. They were doubtful that it could take the place of the classic metal can. Product testers at Sears filled the new plastic garbage cans with water and then dropped them from airplanes to prove their strength and their smash resistance. With the testing successful, the plastic garbage can was the newest product in the Sears assembly line.

Metal garbage cans are still popular with some people, while different types of plastic cans are extremely common with companies coming up with unique designs. Disney World has the most unique designs and these cans have become tourist attractions along with the main showplaces in this unique theme park.

Cultures have changed the meaning of the word garbage. What was once a valuable commodity is now put in the trash too easily. Even using a paper or plastic item twice instead of once would reduce the amount of trash in a household. Let us try to use our garbage cans more efficiently and think a bit before tossing out an item.

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