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A ragpicker in Paris, ca, 1899 - 1901.

A ragpicker or chiffonnier is someone who makes 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 ragpickers (rag and bone man) in the 19th and early 20th century did not recycle the materials themselves. They would simply collect whatever they could find and turn it over to a "master ragpicker" (usually a former ragpicker) who would, in turn, sell it—generally by weight—to wealthy investors with the means to convert the materials into something more profitable.[1][2]

Although it was solely a job for the lowest of the working classes, ragpicking was considered an honest occupation, more on the level of street sweeper than of a beggar. In Paris, for instance, ragpickers 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.[1] When Eugène Poubelle introduced the garbage can in 1884, he was criticized in the French newspapers for meddling with the ragpickers' livelihoods.[3] Modern sanitation and recycling programs ultimately caused the profession to decline, though it did not disappear entirely; rag and bone men were still operating in the 1970s.

Ragpicking is still widespread in Third World countries, 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. In 2015, the Environment Minister of India declared a national award to recognise the service rendered by ragpickers. The award, with a cash prize of Rs. 1.5 lakh, is for three best rag pickers and three associations involved in innovation of best practices.[4]

Relationship in waste management and recycling[edit]

Ragpicking has a positive impact on urban spaces with a weak waste management infrastructure. In India, the economic activity of ragpicking is worth about ₹3200 crore. India was also found to have a near-90% recycle rate for PET bottles, which could probably be attributed to ragpicking, given a lack of solid-waste management and under-developed waste collection and recycling culture in that country.[5]


  • Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1888) includes a poem where the ragpicker 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 ragpickers entitled "The Old Rag-picker of Paris".[6]
  • Bram Stoker's short story, The Burial of the Rats (1896) is set amongst the chiffoniers of the Montrouge district of Paris in 1850.
  • 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.[7]
  • In the 1862 novel Les Misérables, the character Vargouleme is a ragpicker. He considers himself fortunate because, unlike many on the streets of Paris, he has a profession.[citation needed]
  • "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.
  • Picking Rags is a song by singer/musician George "Mojo" Buford from his 1998 album State Of The Blues Harp.
  • A segment from the 1967 CBS News Special Report television broadcast The Tenement portrays the work of a local rag picker in Chicago.


  1. ^ a b Edwards, Henry Sutherland (1893). Old and New Paris: Its history, its people, and its places. Cassell and Co. pp. 360–365. ISBN 9781465581266. Archived from the original on 2021-10-06. Retrieved 2016-10-29.
  2. ^ The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1904). "The Workers in Waste Products". Public Opinion. Vol. 36. Archived from the original on 2021-10-06. Retrieved 2016-10-29.
  3. ^ Lynch, Hannah (1901). French life in town and country. Putnam. pp. 278–279.
  4. ^ "Now, a National Award for rag pickers". The Hindu. PTI. 2015-07-03. ISSN 0971-751X. Archived from the original on 2021-04-29. Retrieved 2021-10-06.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ Chatterjee, Badri (2017-02-19). "India recycles 90% of its PET waste, outperforms Japan, Europe and US: Study". Hindustan Times. Mumbai. Archived from the original on 2021-07-04. Retrieved 2021-10-06.
  6. ^ Francis Saltus Saltus (1890). Shadows and Ideals. C. W. Moulton. Archived from the original on 2021-10-06. Retrieved 2016-10-29.
  7. ^ Grafton, John (1977). New York in the nineteenth century. Dover Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-486-23516-5.