Waste and Want

Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash is part of the welcome shift that has occurred over the past few decades, away from history as grand drama of prominent personages and events to narratives of more mundane matters. In Susan Strasser’s case, this entails focusing on trash, a topic not only “central to our lives yet generally silenced or ignored” but complicated by the fact that “what counts as trash depends on who’s counting.” Building on her earlier studies of American housework and the making of the American mass market, Strasser’s book deals with the transformation of daily life in terms of how handmade goods and industrial products have been repaired, reused, recycled, and discarded, with particular emphasis on the way that the emerging consumer culture of the late- nineteenth century changed the ways Americans live, or rather want and waste. Strasser traces the progress—if that’s the correct word—from an earlier attitude of stewardship to the more recent obsessions with convenience and conspicuous consumption. Along the way, she provides a wealth of fascinating details.

Strasser’s “social history of trash” is for the most part a collection of commonsensical observations rather than startling revelations in which interesting points are all but lost as the author belabors the differences between hooked, braided, and rag rugs. Waste and Want proves especially unsatisfying when Strasser turns—all too briefly—to the postwar period. The ironic and iconic nature of waste in these postmodern times and the situating of patterns of domestic consumption in the larger context of toxic and nuclear wastes that Don DeLillo handled so brilliantly in his 1997 novel Underworld are here left dismayingly unexplored. Although Strasser has sifted through an impressive amount and variety of material (old household manuals, magazine ads, and early as well as recent scholarship), her approach, along with her conclusions, seem ecologically and politically noncommittal, even strangely sanitized.