Rag-and-bone man

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The Bone-Grubber by Richard Beard. Henry Mayhew described one bone-grubber he encountered as wearing a "ragged coat ... greased over, probably with the fat of the bones he gathered."[1]

A rag-and-bone man or ragpicker[2] (UK English) or ragman,[3] old-clothesman,[4] junkman, or junk dealer[5] (US English), also called a bone-grubber, bone-picker, rag-gatherer, bag board, or totter,[6][7] collects unwanted household items and sells them to merchants. Traditionally this was a task performed on foot, with the scavenged materials (which included rags, bones and various metals) kept in a small bag slung over the shoulder. Some rag-and-bone men used a cart, sometimes pulled by a horse or pony.

In the 19th century, rag-and-bone men typically lived in extreme poverty, surviving on the proceeds of what they collected each day. Conditions improved following the Second World War, but the trade declined during the latter half of the 20th century. However, in more recent years, partly as the result of the soaring price of scrap metal, rag-and-bone-style collection continues, particularly in the developing world.

19th century[edit]

Rag-and-bone man in Paris in 1899 (Photo Eugène Atget)

In the UK, 19th-century rag-and-bone men scavenged unwanted rags, bones, metal and other waste from the towns and cities in which they lived.[8] Henry Mayhew's 1851 report London Labour and the London Poor estimates that in London, between 800 and 1,000 "bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers" lived in lodging houses, garrets and "ill-furnished rooms in the lowest neighbourhoods."[9]

The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy bag which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marine-store shop.

— Henry Mayhew[10]

These bone-grubbers, as they were sometimes known, would typically spend nine or ten hours searching the streets of London for anything of value, before returning to their lodgings to sort whatever they had found.[10] In rural areas where no rag merchants were present, rag-and-bone men often dealt directly with rag paper makers,[11] but in London they sold rag to the local traders. White rag could fetch two to three pence per pound, depending on condition (all rag had to be dry before it could be sold). Coloured rag was worth about two pence per pound. Bones, worth about the same,[10] could be used as knife handles, toys and ornaments, and, when treated, for chemistry. The grease extracted from them was also useful for soapmaking. Metal was more valuable; an 1836 edition of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal describes how "street-grubber[s]" could be seen scraping away the dirt between the paving stones of non-macadamised roads, searching for horseshoe nails.[12] Brass, copper and pewter were valued at about four to five pence per pound. In a typical day, a rag-and-bone man might expect to earn about sixpence.[10]

Mayhew's report indicates that many who worked as rag-and-bone men did so after falling on hard times, and generally lived in squalor.[10] Although they usually started work well before dawn, they were not immune to the public's ire; in 1872, several rag-and-bone men in Westminster caused complaint when they emptied the contents of two dust trucks to search for rags, bones and paper, blocking people's path.[13]

In Paris, ragpickers were regulated by law and could operate only at night. They were required to return unusually valuable items either to the items' owners or to the authorities.[14] When Eugène Poubelle introduced the rubbish bin in 1884, he was criticised by French newspapers for meddling with the ragpickers' livelihood.[15]

20th century[edit]

A rag-and-bone man with his horse and cart on the streets of Streatham, southwest London in 1985
A rag-and-bone man in Croydon, London, May 2011

A 1954 report in The Manchester Guardian mentioned that some men could make as much as £25 a day collecting rags. Most used handcarts rather than a bag, and some used a pony and cart, giving out rubbing stones[nb 1] in exchange for the items that they collected.[17] In 1958, a Manchester Guardian reporter accompanied rag-and-bone man John Bibby as he made his rounds through Chorlton and Stretford, near Manchester. For his handcart's load, which comprised rags, furs, shoes, scrap car parts, a settee and other furniture, Bibby made about £2.[18]

The rag-and-bone trade fell into decline; in the 1950s, Manchester and Salford had, between them, around 60 rag merchants, but this had fallen to about 12 by 1978, many having moved into the scrap-metal trade. Local merchants blamed several factors, including demographic changes, for the decline of their industry.[19]

A 1965 newspaper report estimated that in London, only a "few hundred" rag-and-bone men remained, possibly because of competition from more specialised trades, such as corporation dustmen, and pressure from property developers to build on rag merchants' premises.[20]

In the 1980s, Hollywood star Kirk Douglas mentioned in an interview with Johnny Carson that his father was a ragman in New York and "young people nowadays don't know what is ragman."[21]

Although BBC's popular 1960s/70s television comedy Steptoe and Son helped to maintain the rag-and-bone man's status in British folklore, by the 1980s they were mostly gone. In more recent years, rising scrap metal prices have prompted their return, although most drive vans rather than horses and carts, and they announce their presence by megaphone, causing some members of the public to complain about the noise they create.[22][23]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ It had long been customary for rag-and-bone men to "purchase" items from children with a small gift, but the Public Health Act 1936 stated that, as a defence against the spread of disease, rag-and-bone men could not give children under 14 "any article whatsoever". Goldfish, popular items for trade, were later declared not to be articles.[16]


  1. ^ Mayhew 1851, p. 141
  2. ^ "Ragpicker definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary".
  3. ^ "RAG-AND-BONE MAN | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary".
  4. ^ "Rag-and-bone Man | Definition of Rag-and-bone Man by Merriam-Webster".
  5. ^ "Rag-and-bone man definition and meaning". Collins English Dictionary.
  6. ^ "Regulating the Rag and Bone Man". Law Librarians of Congress.
  7. ^ Kuper, Jeremy (5 August 2006). "Final collection". Guardian Newspapers Limited.
  8. ^ Mayhew 1851, p. 136, 139
  9. ^ Mayhew 1851, p. 138
  10. ^ a b c d e Mayhew 1851, p. 139
  11. ^ Magee 2002, pp. 107–108
  12. ^ Chambers & Chambers 1836, p. 213
  13. ^ Magee 2002, p. 107
  14. ^ Edwards 1893, pp. 360–365
  15. ^ Lynch 1901, pp. 278–279
  16. ^ Gluckman 2004, pp. 202–203
  17. ^ "The Rag-And-Bone Collector", The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959), Guardian Newspapers Limited, p. 3, 5 August 1954, ProQuest 479599435
  18. ^ "A Day in the Life of the Rag-And-Bone Man: Plenty of Muck, but Little Money", The Manchester Guardian (1901–1959), Guardian Newspapers Limited, p. 5, 2 June 1958, ProQuest 480247834
  19. ^ Finnigan, Roger (17 July 1978), "The Rag End Trade", The Guardian (1959–2003), Guardian Newspapers Limited, p. 12, ProQuest 185958597
  20. ^ "Squeezing Out the Rag Men". The Times. 9 March 1965. p. 23.
  21. ^ "JOHNNY CARSON INTERVIEW KIRK DOUGLAS". Youtube. 5 August 2006. Archived from the original on 2019-10-03.
  22. ^ Edwards, Adam (30 July 2011), Any Old Iron?, The Express, hosted at infoweb.newsbank.com, retrieved 5 December 2011
  23. ^ Rag and Bone men told to scrap their loudspeakers, The Daily Telegraph, hosted at infoweb.newsbank.com, 27 October 2011, retrieved 5 December 2011


Further reading[edit]

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