Blood and Sawdust

spectacular bois durci tray, France, 1900. Julien K Cole
ox blood + sawdust = 19th century wonder material
frames and decorative plaque from the Mernick website collection
"pyrogenes"— match holders
All items, except as noted, from the collection of Gaston Vermosen
In contrast with today's vogueish marketing gestures of reuse, recycling and boutique "upcycling", 19th century society appears to have understood reclamation as a stage of production. According to Susan Strasser, Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware and author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, “The 19th century world regarded reusing materials as a matter of common sense, of stewardship of material goods.” Used goods— metal, cloth, glass — if they were discarded at all, were retrieved by peddlers or scavengers and turned into new goods. Much more so than simply rendering horses at the glue factory, 19th century society was almost perversely adept at recycling. Tallow was reclaimed for candles and soap, bones were ground for matches, gelatine, and soap as well. I read recently that as we are a petroleum-based civilization, the 19th century was a grease- and bone-based one. Add to that blood.

In 1855 Francois Charles Lepage got a French patent for a method of combining blood albumen from slaughterhouses with wood powder to form a plastic, moldable material he called bois durci. The wood dust, either ebony or rose wood, was mixed with blood, dried and then ground to a fine powder. The powder was placed in a steel mold and steam heated to 400-500° in a powerful hydraulic press. After a half hour, the mold was plunged into cold water. The resulting wood product was an extremely dense, highly polished object ready-fashioned into whatever fantastical ornamented fancy was desired, or could be further worked with saw, lathe or burin. The French Scientific and Industrial Year for 1863 explained it's appeal,

We find now... at low prices: statuettes, medallions, and objets d'art, made of this wood, resistant and unalterable in air, which are well superior to [those] moulded in earthenware or plaster. The caskets, inkstands, purses, frames, etc. and the other delicate objects made by the same means, are not challenged for elegance, or the finish of details, by the most well finished of sculptures.
That jet brooch or gutta percha trinket box you purchased at the flea market? Might just be blood. Anything jet could do, bois durci could do cheaper and in brown. In addition to blotters, hand mirrors, and other tabletop niceties, bois durci lent itself to mourning jewelry, photography cases and even early telephone receivers.

Dr. W. H. Dibble of Trenton, NJ, developed the American answer to bois durci, patenting cattle blood and sawdust compressed at 40,000 pounds per square inch as "hemacite" in 1877. Manufacturer and Builder of 1892 rapturously pronounced hemacite "impervious to heat, moisture, atmospherical changes, and, in fact, [it] is practically indestructible... there is... no limit to the artistic and effective combinations..." Hemacite appears to have taken on a more workman-like role than its artistic and aspirational French cousin. Substituted for both wood and metal, it was put to use as doorknobs, escutcheons, all manner of pulls and household trimmings, and, later, roller skate wheels.

Despite their successful run, and a legacy of baroquely bomb├ęd heirloom desk accessories and commemorative plaques, by the early 20th century Bakelite and other modern plastics had left the quaint and earthy bois durci and its ilk in the
proverbial dust. //

Read more about hemacite and bois durci at Cabinet, mernick.org and Un Plastique Naturel by Gaston Vermosen


Garbage pickings

One Half meets the Other Half— West Broadway. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 23, 1881
Well-dressed boulevardiers clutch handkerchiefs to their faces as they pass barrels of filth;
the local garbage gleaner digs right in
Columbus Park, Bayard and Mulberry, c. 1910
Garbage picker, Lower West Side, 1915, Lewis Hine.

Department of Sanitation "White Wings" sweeping up— linen-suited and pith-helmeted,
they were a public relations coup and a success for decades. Photos by Alice Austen
Part of a map Encroachment of Nuisances upon Populous Up-town Districts, 1865; A pig in a bakery cellar, 1902;
Fifth Street, March, 1893. From the brochure to the New York Public Library exhibition Garbage! (1994)

From the brochure to the New York Public Library exhibition Garbage! (1994)
When the temperatures rise so do the aromas of the NYC pavement so it is in springtime this lady's fancy lightly turns to garbage. Waste, trash, refuse, rubbish-garbage is interesting to me or at least the history of it is: how it was collected, what was done with it, and even how the city's filth has manifested differently over the years. My attention was initially captured in the early 90s when I worked on a fun exhibition at the New York Public Library, Garbage! The History and Politics of Trash in New York City where the depths of all manner of sanitation and health issues were plumbed. (We even went to Fresh Kills landfill as research!) Lately interest has been rekindled by my mudlarking jaunts to Dead Horse Bay and Barren Island (now Floyd Bennett Field) picking up 19th century glass, marbles and ceramic shards. Read about Barren Island's fascinating history as an isolated community living in, and making a living from, a dump and garbage boiling facility here and here. (Boiling you say? Yes, "reduction" plants cooked down refuse and offal to reuse blood, bone, fat and tallow. As one garbage scholar astutely notes, the past was a grease- and bone- based civilization as we are a petroleum-based one.) 

Nineteenth century New York City would probably be unbearably offensive to 21st century sensibilities. For instance, in 1880, 15,000 horse carcasses had to be retrieved from city streets along with tons of manure from those thousands of beasts that were still alive. (Though we perhaps still face other noisome assaults, sanitation workers--and citizens--do not have to deal with too many carcasses or dung heaps anymore.) Manhattan street sweepings including manure and ash would be carted to dumps lining the periphery of the island. There, the contents of innumerable wagons was spread by  "trimmers" into 100 x 30 x 9 foot scows used to dump the trash out at sea. On the West side there were dumps at Canal, 30th, 47th, 79th, 97th, 134th Streets keeping real estate prices down, on the East side there were those at Jackson, Stanton, 30th, 46th, 60th, 80th, 107th, and 139th Streets. And that was only the Manhattan river dumps-- there were land dumps, incinerators, grease skimming and bone boiling plants, and horse rendering factories pocking the landscape through out the boroughs. Brooklyn and Queens marshlands were “reclaimed” and made “valuable” with trash dumps. With a history like that no wonder New York turned away from its waterfronts for decades. It is only in recent years New Yorkers have had access to the riverside—or would even want to.//
You might be surprised to learn just how many books there are on garbage—and I just came across a review of another, Picking Up, by Robin Nagle, the Department of Sanitation's official anthropologist in residence. I'd like to spend a day with her.
Garbage scows like these hauled trash out to sea from stations along the waterfront.
The last scow to dump garbage set forth on June 28, 1934.

Excessively watermarked image from the Municipal Archives.
Garbage picker under the 30th Street dump, Jacob Riis, 1890s. From the New York Public Library exhibition Garbage! (1994)
Barren Island relics, 2013. 'Garbage' I picked up on one of my excursions...


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