Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bottle junk dealers

In my research for writing a book on Early Glassworks of California, I stumbled upon some interesting information that may shed some light on why we don't often find the quantities of certain types of bottles. This article appeared in the S.F. Evening Bulletin of July 31st, 1875.

The column was titled "RAGS, SACKS and BOTTLES" The Curiosities of the Old Junk Trade-How Five Hundred People Earn their Living in a Large City. "Any rags, sacks or bottles?' is a cry heard from early morn till the shades of evening on all the highways and byways of San Francisco. How the two hundred or more gatherers of these refuse articles can obtain a livelihood is probably a mystery to most people. But the business is not so precarious as would first appear. Besides owning their own horse and wagon, some of these 'rag, sack and bottle' gatherers have accumulated at times quite a competency, but their boardings generally melt away more quickly than they are acquired. Wealth does not sit well with some people, and this class is not an exception. There are many Chinese scavengers who go about the street, scratching up here and there with a hooked stick such waste matter as can be converted to use in one form or another. They collect rags, paper, tin-foil, etc., and though they are not munificently rewarded for their labor, they contrive to 'pick up a living.'

The junk shops are mainly dependent upon the two classes spoken of for their stock in trade. It is estimated that there are at least five hundred people in San Francisco who earn a living directly or indirectly from the junk business. There are several junk shops which employ quite a large number of men, mostly Chinese, and they have a lucrative trade. Charles Harley & Co, at Nos. 116 and 118 Davis street, are the principal dealers, and they employ about their premises thirty-five or forty men. They have a branch house in New York, to which are consigned large quantities of rags suitable for making shoddy cloth. Rags of all descriptions are sent here from all parts of this State and Nevada by the principal dealers. At Harley & Co's may be seen everything imaginable in the cast-off line, from a mouse-trap to a sheet-anchor. All is fish that comes to their net, and nothing is refused. They obtain a large share of small truck from parties 'declining housekeeping,' who are only too glad in most instances to get any price for their 'old rubbish.'

The prices paid for rags by the junk dealers range from one to five cents per pound, as to quality. These are carefully sorted over at the shops, according to the use to which they are to be put. The cotton rags all go to the different paper mills in this State, and all that contain any wool are sent off to be made over into inferior clothing. Manila rope is untwisted, packed up, and subsequently converted into Manila paper , and burlap sacks, to much worn to be used for any other purpose, are made into 'bogus' Manila paper. Paper of all kinds is worked over and comes from the mills nice and clean. Wrought scrap-iron is bought up by the Pacific Rolling Mill in this city, and all the old pieces of copper and brass are taken by the brass foundries. Yellow metal sheathing, taken from vessels, is mostly sold to Chinese, who ship it to China, there to be converted to various uses.

Some dealers make a specialty of sacks and bottles. The bottles are procured at the saloons, hotels, drug stores and from private families, and the sacks come principally from the restaurants and stables. The bottles are thoroughly cleansed and afterward find there way back to the places whence they came. The flour mills take a great many of the burlap bags, and the gunnies mostly go to the farmers. Charcoal dealers take the ragged or unsound gunnies. A. Waugh & Co. at 112 Main street receive from 18,000 to 25,000 prescription bottles in a month, and of all kinds of bottles, they handle from 30,00o to 40,000 daily.

As it is generally understood that soda bottles are returned after their contents are consumed it may seem strange that such large quantitites of them are to be found in the junk shops. One dealer explained it in this wise: 'You see,' said he, 'there is a good deal of competition among the soda factories, and if any of them get too particular about their bottles, why they stand a chance to lose their customers. And there are a good many people who go to the saloons for a small quantity of liquor and the soda bottles are the best adapted to this trade.'

It is unnecessary to enumerate all the junk dealers, as there is nothing peculiar in the business of any, and the foregoing remarks will apply to all, as a general thing. Thus is seen now at least five hundred people in San Francisco derive their support from what is generally regarded almost as worthless."

I thought some of our blog site followers would find this article interesting.


  1. SUPER interesting article Warren! Particularly the sentence stating that soda bottles were commonly used by saloons for small quantities of liquor. Explains why blob sodas commonly accompany bourbons in some holes! It is likely that many blob sodas found were really "whiskey" bottles. Kind of like fruit jars frequently being used as chamber pots. That is why mint jars are found in privy's. Or whiskeys being used for beer..etc. VERY interesting. M. E.

  2. Excellent post, Warren. I read a few articles in the past that concerned "pre-TC" recycling, but forgot all about them. Thanks for providing the information. It sure makes an old digger's mind wander.

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  4. Great article Warren ! While varying degrees of dipping were present in most towns, the intense recycling in San Francisco was surely unparalleled. It explains what we call ‘San Francisco Specials’: holes lacking bottles of ANY color or shape besides numerous clear apothecary bottles.

    Check out the following clips from the Daily Alta and various 19th Century San Francisco reports:

    1881 Daily Alta Article On Junk Shops

    1884 Notice Regarding Privies

    City Report Showing Stats On Privies And Sewers

  5. Hah! The antique version of todays street people redeeming aluminum cans.Andy

  6. Here's an 1890 reference to the California Glass Works, said to be located at 10th and Utah Streets in San Francisco, but failed before 1889:

    "There is a specific duty of 1 per cent per pound upon empty bottles imported into this country from Europe, and an ad valorem of 30 per cent upon bottles containing liquids. In spite of these duties, for the year ending October 31, 1889, no less than $88,368 worth of bottles passed through the San Francisco Custom House, and for the year immediately preceding, $78,976.

    "Several attempts were made, from time to time, to extend the business of manufacturing glass in this State, but they all proved failures. The Pacific Glass Works at the Potrero, and the California, at Tenth and Utah Streets, in San Francisco, the former with a furnace of from six to eight pots, and the latter from four to five, succumbed after a short existence. The same can be said of the attempts to establish glass works in Oakland and Berkeley."