Digging for Garbage in the Archives
Digging for Garbage in the Archives

In an interdisciplinary honors elective called “Rubbish!”, students examine and analyze historical documents on various aspects of garbage and waste.

In an interdisciplinary honors elective called “Rubbish!”, students examine and analyze historical documents on various aspects of garbage and waste.

Introduction

In this one-visit exercise, students interact with primary source documents about various aspects of garbage and waste in order to practice skills of close analysis and inference. Students then formulate questions they cannot answer without doing external research.

The exercise enables students to understand and articulate the “meta” connections between the documents we examine in the archives and our course, “Rubbish!,” which explores the social, political, ethical, and cultural significance of trash.

Students also consider the very concept of the archives and reflect on its purpose in the context of the course. By visiting an archives, students see first-hand that things which might have been discarded are instead preserved. Students make important observations about how value is determined and about how we define garbage.

The archives visit allows me to elicit intense focus and attentiveness from my students. In small group work in the classroom, students often rush through assigned tasks or wind up chatting instead of pursuing questions more deeply. In the archives, however, students are engrossed in the materials as they gently handle the photographs and documents, use magnifiers, and ask questions of their professor and archives staff.

The students work remarkably well together. They collaboratively mine information from the document, and instead of just filling in the blanks on the worksheets, they have actual discussions, and prompt each other’s valuable observations.

Objectives

Students should be able to:

  • Attentively read and make observations about historical documents
  • Make inferences based on their close observations about the author, subject, and audience of each document
  • Formulate questions for further research

Context

The narrative arc of this course begins with cultural and theoretical questions about how people define “dirty” and “clean” and about how they categorize different kinds of matter. Then we study our “personal waste.” Students bring to class 48 hours worth of their own garbage. See assignment here.

The archives visit is part of a unit which focuses on the history of sanitation in New York City. Prior to our visit to the archives, students read a selection of secondary sources about the management of waste, primarily in New York City (see Further Reading below). These readings, along with class discussions, provide both historical context and theoretical tools that help students better understand the archival material.

Visit

Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 2 hours 10 minutes

Agenda

15 minutes


60 minutes
Small group work


10 minutes
break


30 minutes
Wrap up: group presentations


15 minutes
Wrap up: class discussion


In groups of 4, students examine a suite of primary source documents. Handouts guide groups through the step-by-step process of making observations, formulating inferences, and posing questions about their documents.

Group 1

Students examine a folder of materials from the Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection which contains newspaper clippings, flyers, and letters documenting CORE’s efforts in 1962-63 to increase the frequency of city garbage pickup in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.
See handout here.

Group 2

Students examine one photograph circa 1915 of the interior of a second-hand shop run by the American Legion of Kings County.
See handout here.

Group 3

Students examine a selection of 5 photographs (taken over a period of 50 years) which document the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel in Brooklyn. The tunnel, which opened in 1911, was designed to bring relatively fresh water from Buttermilk Channel into the Gowanus Canal.
See handout here.

Group 4

Students use a light table to examine four lantern slides created by the Brooklyn Bureau of Community Services to document local slum conditions. The photos depict backyard privies and dumps.
See handout here.

Group 5

Students examine two photographs depicting the construction of sewers in Brooklyn. In addition, they read a 1910 newspaper clipping from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in which an editor describes life in Brooklyn in the 1850s before there were sewers.
See handout here.

Each member of the group is assigned a role: document handler, reader, photographer, and note-taker. The notetaker is required to write notes directly on the handout and to record the group’s observations about each document’s size, physical properties, subject, author or creator, date, and audience. The photographer uses a camera (without flash) to take pictures of the collections.

Wrap Up

Each group summarizes their activities and research questions in a 3 – 5 minute presentation to the rest of the class. The instructor then leads the whole class in a discussion reflecting on the experience working with primary sources.

End Products

Blog Posts

After the visiting the archives, students write a 2 – 3 page reflection on our class blog. See prompt here.

Archival Materials Used

Group 1: Congress on Racial Equality (CORE)
[Student selects individual item and fills in description of item here], 1962; Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection, ARC.002; folder 5 “Garbage [Bed Stuy]”; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Operation Clean Sweep, 1962, v1989.22.17; Bob Adelman photographs of Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) demonstrations, 1989.022; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Group 2: Waste Collection Bureau
[Interior view of, / WASTE COLLECTION BUREAU of the / American Legion of Kings County / 71 Douglass St. Brooklyn, N.Y. /], circa 1915, v1973.5.2465; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection, ARC.202; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Group 3: Gowanus Flushing Tunnel
Opening of the Gowanus Flushing Tunnel, v1986.247.1.20, 1911; Brooklyn sewers construction photograph collection, ARC.209; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Top line of outlet pipes 180″ Sewer Head of Gowanus Canal, circa 1905, v1986.242.1.13 a,b; John Farnsworth Hammond, Jr. photograph album and other materials, v1986.242; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Views of the Gowanus Canal, circa 1960, v1974.4.1332, v1974.4.1333, and v1974.4.1334; John D. Morrell photograph collection, ARC.005; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 4: Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service
Devereaux View Company, circa 1920, v1991.110.350; Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service records, ARC.129; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Dirty toilets, circa 1920, v1991.110.396; Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service records, ARC.129; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Dirty cellar, circa 1920, v1991.110.403; Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service records, ARC.129; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Dirty yard, circa 1920, v1991.110.407; Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service records, ARC.129; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Group 5: Brooklyn Sewers
Avenue F looking E. from E. 33rd, 1903, v1986.247.1.1; Brooklyn sewers construction photograph collection, ARC.209; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Broken sewer, 1903, v1986.247.1.33; Brooklyn sewers construction photograph collection, ARC.209; Brooklyn Historical Society.

“Brooklyn’s Dark Ages.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle 22 Oct. 1910. Found in Brooklyn and Long Island Scrapbooks, vol. 3, p. 84; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Further Reading

Miller, Brian. Fat of the Land: Garbage of New York, the Last 200 Years. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000.

Rathje, William and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage. Tucson: University of Arizona, 2001.

A study of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. New York: Little, Brown, 2005.

A meditation on the various waste streams of present-day New York City.

Strasser, Susan. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Henry Holt, 1999.

This excellent social and cultural history shows how for Americans trash became a real problem only in the 19th century, when industrial production and increasing markets for consumer goods created a surfeit of stuff.


To cite this page:
Leah Dilworth, “Digging for Garbage in the Archives,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/rubbish/.

Authors

Leah Dilworth
Professor of English
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >

Used In

Honors Elective 171: Rubbish!

An interdisciplinary elective seminar for honors students in their sophomore year or beyond.

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