Next time you go to throw something away spare a thought for your social status. And the environment. Today’s throwaway culture isn’t that different from Victorian times, according to Sarah Hayes, a research fellow in archaeology and history at La Trobe University.
Australia is a place we’ve apparently been trashing for way longer than the current era of takeaway coffee cups and disposable goods. But do you know why our throwaway culture is so firmly entrenched?
Well, it’s not a recent thing – it goes back to the Victorian era – as in Queen Victoria, not the state. You would have thought that people in the second half of the 19th century may have repaired their possessions or sold them second-hand when they were of no further use. But that doesn’t seem to have always been the case.
Archaeological excavations across Melbourne have turned up “masses of rubbish” from the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s, according to Sarah Hayes.
“Artefacts recovered show that the city’s Gold Rush era’s occupants were incredibly wasteful,” she revealed.
“Working-class people were throwing out so much stuff that the weekly rubbish collections couldn’t manage it all. Residents were stockpiling rubbish under floorboards, in hidden corners of the backyard, or digging holes specifically for it.”
Sarah said Melbourne’s cesspits were closed in the early 1870s but large empty holes were left in the ground. However, opportunistic residents filled them with their surplus rubbish and many of these dumps are still under the city’s buildings.
Understanding why we consume is key to understanding why we are wasteful.
“Analysing the contents of all these rubbish dumps, it’s clear that people were discarding dinner sets and replacing them with more fashionable designs,” Sarah revealed. “They were buying and chucking out junk jewellery, and throwing out glass bottles in vast numbers in spite of industrial-scale local recycling operations.”
Sarah said a rubbish pit that had been dug in the backyard of a draper shop was filled with perfectly good clothes and shoes. Times haven’t changed that much at all it seems. It is thought that the desire to climb up the class ladder in the Gold Rush era contributed to this behaviour.
“The new middle class was determined status based largely on what they bought.”
Understanding why we consume is key to understanding why we are wasteful, digging massive landfills, and experiencing climate change, Sarah said.
“Social mobility may not have the currency it did in the Gold Rush era, but we are still purchasing to communicate something,” she explained. “What we buy announces our position in the world and our values. Our possessions place us within one group and distance us from another.”
As anti-consumerism and concerns over sustainability gather pace, a new brand of cultural capital may emerge, Sarah believes. Perhaps it will be the re-emergence of a time that Baby Boomers and those older will remember. The era of personal shopping bags, in-house coffee and well-crafted possessions that lasted, without a plastic bag in sight.