Rightly or wrongly, others often see our work as defining who we are, and prize some occupations over others. Meet George Goddard, who spent three years traveling Utah and collecting waste.
Today, most Americans make recycling a regular part of their lives. But, in the nineteenth century, the collection of waste was considered unhygienic and was a job left – if at all possible – to the immigrant poor. Utahns were no different in having an uneasy view of the waste trades.
In 1861, however, LDS Church leaders were in desperate need of pulp to supply the Deseret News’s paper mill, in which they’d made a substantial investment. Brigham Young asked women to save old clothing, sheets, wallpaper, wagon covers – any fabric that could be mulched into pulp and turned into paper. But Young needed someone to travel the territory collecting the waste, and so, he called English immigrant George Goddard on a “rag mission.”
When Goddard heard the news, he felt it was a “severe blow to [his] native pride.” A well-respected merchant and auctioneer, Goddard was now the “rag man.” He recalled that, “The humiliating prospect almost stunned me… To be seen on the streets going from door to door with a basket on one arm and an empty sack on the other, enquiring for rags at every house. Oh, what a change in the aspect of affairs…”
For three years, Goddard swallowed his pride and travelled Utah collecting discarded rags for the mill. He performed this task despite the fact that mothers began using him to frighten their children. “You better behave,” they disciplined, “or we’ll give you to the rag man.”
Goddard collected more than 100,000 pounds of rags for the paper project. He later reflected that he never regretted it, believing it was God’s work and in service of his community. He counseled young Mormons to accept their mission calls without complaint. Things could be worse, he implied, you could always get called to collect waste.
In 1867, church leaders turned rag collection over to the women’s organization known as the “Relief Society.”
Image: Peggy Bacon (American, 1895-1987), The Rival Ragman, 1936, edition of 139, published by Associated American Artists, New York in 1938.
See Leonard J. Arrington. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints: 1830-1900. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005, pp. 114-116; Dean L. May. Utah: A People's History. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987, p. 77; Deseret News, May 14, 1862 and August 20, 1862; Deseret Weekly, April 4, 1896, Journal of Discourses, April 7, 1861