The Rag Trade: 1859

Rag sorters at a Springfield, Massachusetts shoddy mill.

Rag sorters at a Springfield, Massachusetts shoddy mill.


Wednesday being a leisure day with Mr. Tibbit, I presented myself, according to appointment, at two o’clock in the afternoon, at his warehouse,Tooley Street, Southwark. A solitary country cart stood at Mr. Tibbit’s door, being, as the legend on the shaft informed me, a native of Swillmead, Bucks. Groping my way through a grove of corpulent sacks, that reached from the floor to the ceiling, I came on Mr. Tibbit’s scalesman in altercation with the man of Bucks, concerning a bag of rags, still on the scale, and the bowels of which the weigher had ruthlessly ripped up, preferring, as he significantly remarked, “to trust his own eye-sight before the bare word of any general dealer going.”

“As good whites, them is, as iver you seed in your loife,” asseverated the Bucks. “Outshots, I tell you, nothing better!” persisted the scalesman. “You don’t catch me lettin’ you hev ’em as sich.” The door of the counting-house at the end of the grove opened fiercely at this moment, and, glaring through his spectacles, little Mr. Tibbit skipped up to the bag of contention. Plunging his hand into the gash in the side thereof, he withdrew a few fragments of rag, and then catching up a piece of chalk, rapidly figured the weight and value of the whole on a large slate that hung against the wall.

“One and a quarter outshots!” shouted he to the young man at the desk, “at twenty-one! One—six—three! How de do, Mr. G.? Pungshall to time! Nothing like it, sir. Dick, bring me my hat. Come this way, sir.”

The big man in the leathern gaiters said not another word, but quietly walked up for his “one—sis—three;” while Mr. Tibbit, glancing over his shoulder to see that I was following, dived into a maze of gloomy, queer-smelling passages, dimly lighted with gas. Tiers of squat bags, through whose interstices the sheen of metals was visible; pyramids of lead, in sheet, in snaky coils, and in “pig ;” monstrous bales of horse-hair, some labelled “raw,” and others “curled.” Then came a bit of open, where stood a stack of old iron, as tall, and altogether as large, as an eight-roomed house! Surely every iron thing manufactured since the demise of that celebrated artisan, Tubal Cain, was represented here. The frame of a pair of spectacles, half a sword blade, a noseless anvil, a great ancient Key, and a rusty, drunken-looking old corkscrew, caught my eye at one glance as I passed. Good heavens! if every broken, rusty, battered thing that went to make that iron mountain could have related its experiences!

My loitering steps had enabled the agile Tibbit to get some distance in advance, and I presently saw him on the summit of a mound of merchandise beckoning me forward. I leapt up the mound, formed of great bags like hop-pockets: they emitted a strange crackling sound.

“Old pawn-tickets, they are,” remarked Mr. Tibbit, answering my surprised glance of interrogation; “there’s a ton and a half of ’em altogether!”

“A ton and a half of pawnbrokers’ tickets! Mr. Tibbit, what food for reflection is here! How many stories of poverty, and recklessness, and hunger, and extravagance do these eloquent little scraps of pasteboard bear witness to?”

“Can’t say—never counted ’em; ’tain’t part of my business,” replied Mr. Titbit, curtly: “I’ll tell you what it is, my friend, if you want to know the history and mystery of everything you may happen to stumble over on my premises, you had better defer your inspection till that remote period when I shall have nothing else to do than to be your guide and interpreter. The object of your visit, if I properly understand it, is to see a rag-bag opened for sorting, and to hear an account of the various purposes to which its contents would be applied. If that is still your intention, come on up these stairs—time is money, you know, young fellow!” I could only plead in excuse the interesting nature of the subject. “Well, if you feel any interest in a lot of old pawn-tickets,” replied he,” you are welcome to a handful—kind of sample, you know. Seven and a half I’ll allow you if you bring a customer for the lot. What are they good for? Why they are worked up again, made into common brown card-board, and then veneered with fine paper for railway-tickets, and all that sort of thing.”

Pocketing the proffered handful of tickets, I followed Mr. Tibbit up the steep ladder, with its greasy cable hand-rail, and into the sorting house. This was a dreary uncomfortable place, about sixty feet long and thirty wide. It was lighted partly by a few grimy windows, and partly by gaps cut in the walls for the sake of ventilation. The cold wind played in and out of these apertures, which were, moreover, fantastically barred with rails, rendering the rag-house anything but a cheerful place that dull December afternoon. Across the beams and joists overhead, humid rags of the heavy drugget and carpet order were hung to dry —and, O! the effluvia they emitted! A fire in these places, Mr. Tibbit informed me, was not allowed by the fire insurance offices. How wretched, then, alas, must be the life of a “sorter” in the winter—and how much worse in the summer! Why, the rag-house must be in a continual fog—a horrid steam—from these heaps of sweating rags!

I venture to make this observation to Mr. Tibbit, who triumphantly asserts, and turns to his work-people for confirmation, that among some eight or nine hundred persons employed in the London rag trade, only six fatal cholera cases occurred during the three months in 1849, when the epidemic was at its height.

Of the labourers in Mr. Tibbit’s sorting-house, the majority were females, mostly Irish females; and attired more in obedience to the inclemency of the work-room than to the prevailing fashion. Five old women and eight or nine girls, varying in age from fifteen to twenty, were seated in a circle on the ground. In their midst was an immense heap of dilapidated cloth garments — coats, cloaks, trousers, mantles, &c, &c. Each operator being furnished with a bushel basket, and a pair of long sharp scissors, helped herself from the heap, and cut away every seam, button-hole, or morsel of lining from the scrap in course of dissection. If a finishing touch was required to complete the desolation of the rag-house, it certainly was supplied in the cold, monotonous clashing of the dozen pairs of scissors. For every hundredweight of “clean cloth” snipped: into the basket, the cutter receives three shillings. To cut seventy pounds of cloth is considered a good day’s work, a circumstance that rather surprised me after I had seen how fast it was possible to work a pair of scissors. Over against the wall stood an old woman making and repairing bags. Elegance not being so requisite as strength for this kind of needlework, the appearance of the old dame was as unlike the ideal seamstress as possible. She was attired in a coat that had once been a cabman’s, evidently. She had great leather gloves on her hands; her needle excelled in size a considerable skewer; while for thread she used ordinary “lay cord.”

There were six rag-sorters. Each man stood before a large sieve, such as is used by builders, being about six feet long and three wide, and was surrounded by a dozen baskets, into which were pitched the various “sorts.” Above the sieve was slung a big bag on which the sorter operated. A new and virgin bag was slung in my honour; and, stationing myself with Mr. Tibbit at a handy distance, the business began. Out tumbled, first of all, a tattered merino mantle, trimmed with crape. Very brown and threadbare, and much darned was the mantle, and I innocently looked for the accompanying widow’s cap. The sorter ruthlessly seized the poor old garment, and, rending the crape therefrom, tossed the merino into a basket, and, rolling up the sombre trimming, threw it up on a shelf.

“That stuff is not of much use, I suppose, Mr. Tibbit?” remarked I, wishing to display my sagacity.

“Ain’t it,” replied the rag-merchant: “I wish I had a ton of it! Why, that’s one of the most valuable articles that passes through my hands, sir. [Some] hunt it up as though it was old gold. Look here,” said he, taking down a huge bundle of dismal, copper-coloured rubbish, “this is the kind of material used by half the mourning milliners and artificial-flower makers in London. The dirt is steamed out of it, and it is dyed and stiffened to look ‘equal to new.’ It would be quite,” continued Mr. Tibbit pleasantly, “only that it’s rather tender, and won’t bear much handling.”

So it comes about that the crape worn, and worn out, in Poverty Rents by widow Jenkins, is presently transformed into flowers, amidst which Lady Bangman mourns her departed lord in a fashionable and becoming manner.

“This is another valuable sort of rag,” said Mr. Tibbit, fishing from the sieve a few new white linen cuttings: “this kind is used in the manufacture of the most superior kind of paper—paper in which extreme fineness and great strength are the chief requisites. This sort of paper is used for bank-notes, cheques, &c. That goes for writing paper,” continued the rag dealer, pointing to a grimy calico shirt sleeve which now turned up. “All unprintcd calicos go for the same purpose. This (a little frock of coloured calico) goes to make printing papers. All coloured rags are made into printing papers, and are valuable according to the depth of their colours; this (a scrap of lavender-lined rag) is a very good sort; this (the skirt of a ‘half-mourning’ cotton gown) is the worst kind of rag for paper making, because an alkali of sufficient strength to remove the dye will not fail to render the fabric rotten, and only fit to be used with better sorts.”

” What sort of paper does that make?” I inquired, smiling, as a huge coal sack came down into the sorting arena.

“Very good paper, sir,” replied Mr. Tibbit, gravely, and with a reproving glance, which instantly checked my levity. “Brown paper, sir! The tar will be boiled out of that old coal-sack until it is as clean as your handkerchief. Why, sir, in these days, this sort of material is considered too precious for brown paper making! Ten to one but by the time it is worked into pulp it will make the acquaintance of a few hop-roots, if nothing more disrespectable even than that! Here comes some sugar-paper material,” continued he, as some brown sacking similar to that in which coffee and rice is imported was disgorged from the big bag! “All flax, sir, and a great pity it is that it can’t be put to a better purpose. But, you see, it is undressed flax—not so much as even stripped of the knots” (he held the bag up, and pointed out some short straws that were blended with the flax); “and the worst of it is, there is no removing it. As you see the short straws here, so they will appear in the manufactured sugar-paper.”

As the business of sorting proceeded, I plainly saw that the thriftless servant and the slatternly housewife were the best friends and patrons of the rag-merchant. Really, a full fourth of the material that passed through the hands of the sorter were not rags at all. Perhaps I should rather say they were not rags in tatters. Many were the stockings thrown among the “dirty whites” that a careful woman would speedily have rendered sound and wearable with a very little darning-cotton and a liberal quantity of soap! Many were the little frocks and pinafores prematurely consigned to the “coloured” bin for want of the saving “stitch in time.” The honest bona fide rags, the rags of the industrious poor, were distinguishable by their invariable cleanliness. If the cast-off garments were clean, they were sure to be threadbare and patched to death. One other thing was especially observable amongst this merchandise: it was mostly made up of children’s clothing. Explainable, I suppose, from the fact that mother’s gown is so often transformed into a frock for little Polly, while father’s coat is metamorphosed into a jacket for young Dick, who “goes out to work.”

Helter-skelter, out they tumble! Year-old baby’s worsted boots, and four-score baby’s worsted slippers! The cotton “bird’s-eye” neckerchief of the navvey, and the satin lace-edged “garter-tie” of Mr. Highbury Barn! These are the remnants of the collars first mounted by young Gill, excoriating his tender neck, and covering him with confusion, consequent upon the inquiries they elicited from his youthful companions! There is the ghost of that splendid, though ugly, shawl that Tom Brown the blacksmith presented to his bride. Many a sick little Brown has that shawl comforted since, and now it will go to nurture potatoes on farmer Wiggins’s lands.

“What is that used for, Mr. Tibbit?” I inquired, as a threadbare piece of Brussels carpet turned up.

“That has done its work, sir,” replied the rag-dealer. “That’s about the hardest worked article of any manufactured. People ain’t half as hard on Kidderminster! but poor Brussels goes from the drawing-room to the bed-room, and from the bed-room to the kitchen, till at last it comes to us, worn out and bald—all its wool worn off, you know, and only fit to be buried.”

“And suppose,” said I, “that all the wool is not worn off when it comes into your hands?”

“Well,” replied he, “I can only answer your question by explaining the treatment generally of rags composed of a mixture of wool and cotton. By a lately-discovered process it is possible, by the aid of chemicals, to destroy every particle of cotton or other vegetable substance in woven fabrics, leaving the wool intact. However, it is an expensive operation, and is only applied to such rags as are made up of at least half-wool. Bags in which wool exists in a smaller proportion, can be used for nothing but the land, and are not worth more than about three shillings the hundred weight. So that you see the existence of a little wool in cotton rags, by rendering them unfit for paper-making, depreciates their value at least two hundred per cent.!”

“There’s a nugget, Mr. Tibbit!” said I, as a lady’s amber-coloured silk-jacket was hustled into the sorting-sieve in company of a dismembered pair of corduroy trousers.

“Yes, my friend, a draper’s nugget—not a rag-dealer’s,” responded Mr. Tibbit, contemptuously. “This is well enough,” continued he (pointing to the white-linen lining); “even this is of some use (tearing a rent in the lining, diving his experienced hand between the inner and outer material, and producing a quantity of wadding—oh ! the mystery of dress-making!); it can be rolled again into sheets and dyed black; but as to this rubbish (the amber silk) I’d sell a ton of it for a hundredweight of good old ropes! No, sir, of all useless material, worn-out silk is certainly the most useless! It is absolutely good for nothing!”

“Except as land-rags,” interposed I.

“Absolutely good for nothing, I said,” replied the dogmatic Tibbit. “It certainly is used as land-rag, but I’d be glad to know of what use it is. Rags are put into the ground for two purposes: Firstly, that by their absorbent nature they may store up superabundant moisture, to be yielded up on demand to the thirsty earth; and secondly, that the soil may be fertilised by their decomposition. Now, where will you find a more unlikely material than silk to perform either of these offices? Nothing that I know of—with the exception of Macintosh— is less absorbent; and of all woven fabrics buried in the earth, silk is among the last to decay. Precious aristocratic stuff silk is, I can tell you, from first to last!” And with a scornful gesture, Mr. Tibbit pitched the dainty jacket upon the old carpet.

So depressing an influence did the unfortunate jacket appear to have on the rag-merchant, that for full two minutes he said not a word. However, a lively shower of new scarlet cloth cuttings fortunately occurring, he again took up the thread of his discourse.

“Ah! that’s something better, sir,” said he. “The man who first discovered how to treat that article made a pretty fortune, I can tell you!”

I inquired of what nature was the discovery.

“Extracting the scarlet dye,” replied Mr. Tibbit, complacently stroking a shred of the famous cloth. ” He kept the secret well, too! Made forty thousand pounds by it before it leaked out. The oddest part of the business is, that the dye extracted is better and of greater value than that newly manufactured! Everybody knows how it’s done now. But it’s a good article to deal in still—a very good article. Reach me that bit of drab, Joe,” said Mr. Tibbit to the sorter.

The “bit of drab” appeared to be part of the skirt of a watchman’s coat.

“That’s rather uncommon stuff, sir,” said he, snapping the drab cloth between his finger and thumb heartily; “that’s wool, sir, that is; every grain of it!

“So is all cloth, isn’t it?” I replied, innocently.

“I wish it was, my friend,” said Mr. Tibbit, with a look that denoted his compassion for my simplicity. “No, sir. Cloth, as a rule, left off being cloth during the latter part of the French war, when commerce was crippled, and people debarred from honest materials were at their wits’ end for shifts and substitutes. It has been degenerating ever since, till it has become nothing better than cotton faced with devil’s-dust.'”

Without knowing its meaning, I had repeatedly heard this latter expression used in connection with tailoring, especially tailoring according to the Hebrew persuasion. This I thought would be a good opportunity to obtain information on the subject.

“What is devil’s-dust, Mr. Tibbit.'”

“This sort of thing,” replied he, coolly taking up the skirt of my outer garment (Registered Albert—thirty-nine and sixpence—Moses and Aaron, Minories.)

“That is absurd, Mr. Tibbit,” I replied. “This is wool, sir, and warranted shrunk.”

“Oh, I’ll warrant you it’s well shrunk,” answered the rag-dealer, with a malicious chuckle. “One more shrinking will about do the business for all the wool there is in that article. However, that isn’t answering your question, ‘What is devil’s-dust?’ Since it was discovered that woollen goods might be re-manufactured, it seems to have been the mistaken opinion of many cloth-makers that wool, like lead, had only to be re-cast to be again new, and that this operation might be repeated any number of times. So they went on, making and remaking, till every spark of vitality was ground out of the wool—till it lay a dead heap, refusing to be woven any more. That was the original devil’s-dust; and this is the ingenious process invented for making it a means of adulterating cloth. First of all is laid a thin stratum of good live wool, then a liberal sprinkling of devil’s-dust, then a topping of good wool again. Then the mixture is rolled into hanks, and spun into fine thread for weaving; the genuine wool that was placed top and bottom forming a secure sheathing to the devil’s-dust, let the thread be drawn out ever so finely. In fact, if you understand how a little cube of copper is electro-plated before it is drawn out as gold or silver wire, you have an exact notion of the devil’s-dust process. Cloth made entirely from this adulterated material would not be so bad, but the ingenuity of a certain class of cloth manufacturers goes yet a step farther! Observe this piece I hold in my hand. When I tear it this way, it parts without any noise; but this way, you perceive it sounds precisely as though I was tearing a piece of calico. This kind of cloth is made by first laying a woof of thread, and then crossing it with a warp either of devil’s-dust alone, or a mixture of that popular material with a little good wool.”

The big bag was by this time emptied, so with a severe hand I buttoned up the wretched registered Albert, whose hypocrisy Mr. Tibbit had unmasked, thanked the good gentleman for his courtesy, and departed from his premises. J. W. G.

The Welcome Guest, 1859

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mr Tibbit seems to have been an early proponent of what to-day is called “recycling.”  This piece is a revealing look at some of the tricks of the textile manufactories. Devil’s dust, also known as “flock,” was old cloth, either wool or cotton, ground into powder and used to adulterate newly woven fabric. Such fabric was sometimes known as “shoddy.” It was said that some mills did not scruple about using “diseased” rags and that the calico trade of Huddersfield was nearly ruined by the practice.  Out-shots refers to a second-class grade of hemp. The job of rag-sorter was an unpleasant one: the rags might be filthy, infested with lice, fleas, or other vermin, and hospital rags might contain smallpox or other contagion.

Mr Tibbit’s remarks on the value of crape are revealing. It was a popular superstition (fostered, one suspects, by the crape merchants of the Norwich crape mills) that it was unlucky to keep crape in the house after mourning was concluded. Its scarcity in the rag market suggests that this was not the case or that it was sold to the old-clothes merchants instead of ending in the rag-bag.

Here is an article about a “shoddy” factory in the United States.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.





11 thoughts on “The Rag Trade: 1859

  1. Louise kahler

    Mrs Daffodil, this entry requires further investigation. Praytell, the exact title and author of the above extract? Kind regards as ever, Mrs. K.


    1. chriswoodyard Post author

      Dear Mrs Kahler,
      Alas, Mrs Daffodil is as much in the dark about the author of the extract as yourself. The title is “A Rag-Bag Opened” and it is only attributed to “J.W.G.” Here is more information about the periodical in which it appeared: If you discover the identity of the mysterious “J.W.G.” Mrs Daffodil and her readers would be delighted if you would share the fruits of your researches.
      With best wishes,
      Mrs Daffodil


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