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A Rag-picker, or Chiffonnier, was a 19th- and early 20th-century term for someone who made a living by rummaging through refuse in the streets to collect material for salvage. Scraps of cloth and paper could be turned into cardboard, broken glass could be melted down and reused, and even dead cats and dogs could be skinned to make clothes. The rag-pickers did not recycle the materials themselves; they would simply collect whatever they could find and turn it over to a "master rag-picker" (usually a former rag-picker) who would, in turn, sell it—generally by weight—to wealthy investors with the means to convert the materials into something more profitable.
Although it was solely a job for the lowest of the working classes, rag-picking was considered an honest occupation, more on the level of street sweeper than of a beggar. In Paris, for instance, rag-pickers were regulated by law: Their operations were restricted to certain times of night, and they were required to return any unusually valuable items to the owner or to the authorities. When Eugène Poubelle introduced the garbage can in 1884, he was criticized in the French newspapers for meddling with the rag-pickers' livelihoods. Modern sanitation and recycling programs ultimately caused the profession to decline, though it did not disappear entirely; rag and bone men are not uncommon in England today.
Rag-picking is still widespread in Third World countries today, such as in Mumbai, India, where it offers the poorest in society around the rubbish and recycling areas a chance to earn a hand-to-mouth supply of money.
- Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (1857) includes a poem where the rag-picker character has a prominent role, entitled "Le Vin de chiffonniers" ("The Rag-Picker's Wine").
- Francis Saltus Saltus' Shadows and Ideals (1890) includes a poem about rag-pickers entitled "The Old Rag-picker of Paris".
- A section of tenement buildings near Chatham Square, Manhattan became known as Rag-picker's Court, as this was the profession of most of its residents. In 1879, William Allen Rogers drew the rag-strewn courtyard for Harper's Weekly as part of a series of engravings focused on inner-city life.
- In the 1862 novel Les Misérables, the character Vargouleme is a rag-picker. He considers himself fortunate because, unlike many on the streets of Paris, he has a profession.
- "Original Rags" is an 1899 musical medley for piano, an early example of the Ragtime genre, that makes reference to rag picking, as well as a pun
- "Rag and Bone" is a song by the American garage rock band The White Stripes, told from the point of view of two rag and bone collectors.
- The Ragpicker's Dream is a song and album by songwriter/guitarist Mark Knopfler released in 2002.
- Edwards, Henry Sutherland (1893). Old and New Paris: Its history, its people, and its places. Cassell and Co. pp. 360–365.
- The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1904). "The Workers in Waste Products". Public Opinion 36.
- Lynch, Hannah (1901). French life in town and country. Putnam. pp. 278–279.
- Francis Saltus Saltus (1890). Shadows and Ideals. C. W. Moulton.
- Grafton, John (1977). New York in the nineteenth century. Dover Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-486-23516-5.
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