Recycling in Downton Abbey

January 5, 2014 marks the return of Downton Abbey in North America, and I for one couldn’t be more excited. I came late to this television masterpiece, having binge-viewed the first three seasons over the past few weeks.

Telling the story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants during the early 1900s (now in the 1920s), this riveting TV show is part historical record and part sudsy soap opera.

From a historical point of view, we’ve witnessed the sinking of the Titanic, the distrust of electricity, the introduction of the telephone, and the devastation of the First World War.

We’ve seen the servants stoke fires, clean floors and prepare luncheons, but we haven’t seen how Mrs. Hughes would have managed the household’s waste.

The early 1900s in England was an era of economic prosperity, urbanization, and increasing population. Regardless of socio-economic class — every person generated waste. In fact, “Birmingham, Britain’s second-largest city in 1900 … saw its household waste output rise by over 11% between 1900 and 1915…”

So, how did Edwardian society manage their waste?

First, Mrs. Patmore would have ensured there was minimal food waste. Most leftovers would be reused in hearty breakfasts; but it’s possible some leftovers may have been sent to a nearby farm as pig slop. Today, there’s growing concern about edible food waste and a re-emerging trend to eat leftovers!

In the early 1900s, disposable items and packaging didn’t exist to the same extent they do now, so most other solid wastes would have been burned, and the ashes placed in an ash pit.

A gas powered collection vehicle operated by Westminster Wharfage, Great Britain.

A gas-powered collection vehicle operated by Westminster Wharfage, Great Britain. From “Centenary History Of Waste And Waste Managers In London And South East England.”

In urban areas like London, household ash was placed in metal dustbins, which were emptied regularly by a municipal collector called the “dustman.” The ash would have then been used in road construction or in brick-making. At that time, most municipal waste collection was provided by horse-drawn vehicles, but motorized vehicles were starting to make inroads.

Also prevalent in the early 1900s was the “rag and bone man.” These recyclers went door-to-door collecting rags to be recycled into carpet underlay or mattress stuffing, and bones to be used as fertilizer.

It wouldn’t be until 1928 that the UK’s Ministry of Health reported on the environmental concerns of uncontrolled waste disposal.

Much too has been made of the clothing worn by the Crawley family. We’ve seen fashions change from Edwardian to Flapper. We’ve seen evening gowns, stunning wedding dresses, military and servant uniforms, and poor Daisy with one plain dress.

In keeping with the era, the servants like Mr. Molesley, are depicted repairing clothing to extend their use. What an idea — repairing clothes instead of throwing them away!

Maggie Smith (2010) wearing a dress originally worn by Uma Thurman (2000). From Recycled Movie Costumes.

The television producers have a challenge managing all those costumes. The costumes can’t be easily bought off a rack, and to physically make each and every costume — when some are only seen on-screen for a few minutes — would be a complete waste of resources. So the show’s costume designers rent many of the costumes. In fact, there’s a website devoted to spotting recycled costumes across movies and television shows! It’s interesting that in modern times, men will rent tuxedos or suits for weddings and galas, but women will buy dresses that are only worn once!

So as Season 4 of Downton Abbey gets under way, will we see Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes or perhaps one of the footmen or maids roll out some dustbins on their waste collection day?

Imagine what Lady Violet would say if she saw a row of recycling bins lined up in front of Downton Abbey!

About John Watson

I'm a communicator, educator and project manager with a focus on environmental and public works issues. I am currently the Environmental Manager for the Municipality of Dysart et al in Haliburton County. Previously, I was the Onboarding Director for ReCollect Systems, where I implemented digital communication products for municipalities and non-profits. For eight years, I was the Waste Diversion Educator Coordinator for Halton Region, where I implemented award winning communications and outreach programs.
This entry was posted in Green Living, History, Movie Review, Recycle, Reduce, Reuse and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Recycling in Downton Abbey

  1. Nice article. Engaged me right away with the Downton Abbey connection. It really makes you think about how we’ve become such a throw away society.

  2. 67merrill says:

    Hi John, thanks for becoming a follower of my blog. I’m glad that you’re passionate about your work and, very obviously, the future and (what’s left of) the natural world. It’s good that you are seeing everything, such as Downton Abbey, through a filter of “what did they do with their waste.” Keep on keepin’ on. It’s folks like you that can make a difference.

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