The Colonel, as George Waring Jr came to be known, may have been the most famous garbageman ever. He had the goods to make him famous: he managed Horace Greeley’s farm and helped design the drainage system for Central Park; he was a colonel in the Civil War (although his greatest feat there seems to have been recruitment); he authored many books, with titles such as Draining for Profit, Draining for Health, Earth Closets, Whip and Spur, the Handy-Book of Husbandry, and A Farmer’s Vacation; he designed sewer systems for such cities as Syracuse and Memphis; and he is credited with introducing the Trophy Tomato to agriculturalists.
Although these achievements make him interesting as a person, they don’t have too much bearing on garbage. In 1894, Waring was appointed Street Cleaning Commissioner of New York City. The Colonel inherited a street cleaning department that was about as effective as using a butterfly net to carry water. Under Tammany Hall control the Street Cleaning Department, like most others, was grossly corrupt. Waring promised to put a man, not a voter, behind every broom. Oh for the days when political slogans involved brooms.
There are several pairs of startling photographs which show the streets before Waring and after he came into office. Waring got his budget increased and managed to decrease corruption, these two actions alone probably leading to the drastic change in effectiveness. But what interests me about him is another tactic he used, a tactic that likely stemmed from his clearly egotistical personality (he wrote several articles about how great it was to be in charge in a system like the military where everyone had to obey him–this was his idea of fraternity).
Waring’s great idea was that he forced his street sweepers wear white uniforms and silly hats and that he made them march in parades.
Rousing. These troops of garbagemen became known as the White Wings. While this may not seem like the sort of solution that is wanted when it comes to the massive pile-up of waste we are currently experiencing, perhaps the Colonel was on to something.
In general, we are pretty good at making garbage disappear. That’s the whole point of our waste management system: make it go away. Maybe because it’s boring, maybe because like shit, it’s not something we want to deal with. Stinky, gross, possibly toxic, definitely dirty, why do we want to pay attention to this again?
As far as I am concerned, the Colonel’s groundbreaking addition to the industry of waste management, an addition that hasn’t always been remembered, was that it shouldn’t hide.
Garbage isn’t a popular sight. From the age-old privilege of the rich to push the garbage away from themselves, to the late-blooming advent of industrialized waste management techniques to Keep America Beautiful’s vapid campaign to deal with that most visible form of garbage, to the fortress-like security of modern day landfills, garbage is not for your eyes. But Waring brought it back, even if his manner was somewhat obnoxious.
This famous garbageman managed also to find a hero’s death: President McKinley appointed him as a Special Commissioner of the United States to investigate yellow fever deaths in Havana. Waring caught the yellow fever instead of simply investigating it. He was cremated on a quarantined island in New York in late 1898.
Historian Martin Melosi said of him: “The thrust of Waring’s sanitary programs are best described as ‘pragmatic environmentalism.’ Publicizing the department’s activities and mustering all available human and material resources, Waring proved that change was possible without elaborate facilities and without blind adherence to a technological panacea. Waring was naive about the possible achievements of environmental sanitation in promoting health, but his instincts about acting upon obvious problems and his tenacity in promoting community involvement in sanitation paid rich dividends.” (Garbage in the Cities).