Recycling in the Victorian Era

“Going green” isn’t a new thing–it’s been around for ages. In fact, the Victorians did it through hand-me-downs and by repurposing goods. Read on and discover recycling the Victorian way.


Victorian Era Gown

Even a glamorous gown like this was a likely hand-me-down during the Victorian era.


It didn’t start with Scarlett O’Hara, but the custom never was as sexy as the get-Rhett gown she made from Tara’s glorious antebellum draperies.

Although the Victorian era may seem glamorous, not everyone was wealthy, and that, combined with a predisposition to waste not, want not, led to a lot of recycling. There, of course, were the sort of hand-me-downs that still occur—wealthy women gave last season’s gowns to the servants who wore them, and then cut them down and made outfits for family members. Eventually, some of the outfits got new life as prime pieces in artistic crazy quilts or ended up in the rag bag.

From these cast-off rags came not riches but a good chunk of change. In Victorian England, the smart penny-pinchers sold the best linen rags to the local rag and bone shop, which resold them to factories that made them into paper. These shops also bought and sold other things, including bones that were subsequently ground up and made into manure and household ashes from the home coal bin that were used in the manufacture of bricks.

Other household goods, including the drippings from roasted meat, were reused. They were one perk of the housekeeper’s job. These castoffs served as butter for the poorer classes.

All this reselling had its downside: Dickensian Dumpster divers were not content to find what they may. Unscrupulous characters plotted to get the goods, some even going so far as to accost well-heeled children in the street and strip them of their costly clothes.

Oh, by the way, that dress-from-draperies idea itself got recycled. In 1965’s The Sound of Music, a century after Scarlett, that clever nun Maria took that “sew, a needle pulling thread” and made matching play outfits for Captain Von Trapp’s children from the curtains. She, too, gets her guy.


By Nancy A. Ruhling

Photography by Jaimee Itagaki

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