Victory Auto Wreckers and the Long History of Junk as a Dirty Word

chinews-victory-auto-wreckers-launch-20150121Personal history frequently dovetails with broader historical trends. That was my experience this week after seeing news about a staple of my childhood.

Most kids who grew up in Chicago households with televisions over the past fifty years have probably seen ads for Victory Auto Wreckers. Most scrap and salvage businesses do not advertise on television, but rare was the White Sox game or Saturday afternoon movie of my youth that did not feature at least one Victory ad.

Most of the ones I saw are lost to history, but one 1985 Victory Auto Wreckers ad has aired on Chicago television for thirty years. Victory Auto Wreckers is in the news in 2015 because the business has decided to finally update its ad. Although the phone number, address, name, and type of business has remained unchanged, Victory wants to update its image. Owner Kyle Weisner, who took over the business from his father since the last ad was filmed, spoke with Wailin Wong of The Distance (which then provided the story to the Chicago Tribune website) about the image problem.

….change — and an all-new commercial — is finally coming to Victory, which was founded in 1945 by two World War II veterans and is located in Bensenville, Ill., just beyond the southern edge of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. A place like Victory, where broken-down cars are stripped and flattened, seems like an unlikely candidate for a makeover. But the business has invested millions of dollars into upgrading its facilities and reshaping its image from a dirty junkyard to a modern recycling center, complete with its own mobile app.
“The commercial shows a shot of the yard, and you see it almost looks like it was filmed on a rainy day,” Kyle says. “It’s so muddy and disgusting, and everything is haphazard and all over the place. Now it’s paved. It’s beautiful. You can come in here after work with your suit on or your loafers or whatever, and not have to worry about getting dirty. …It’s something that we’ve never had before. We’ve entered the 21st century.”

CashforYourTrashWhat I love about this quote is how explicitly it uses the rhetoric scrap recycling businesses have used to distinguish their businesses from waste and filth for a century. This point is a continuity through the history of scrap recycling, as I noted in my 2005 book Cash for Your Trash. While popular perceptions of recycling in the 21st century link it to environmentally virtuous, ethical behavior, the acts of reclaiming and reprocessing post-consumer and post-industrial materials bore stigma in the early 20th century. Progressive reformers like Jane Addams railed against scrap businesses endangering the physical and moral health of urban children. Zoning ordinances after World War I sought to keep such businesses out of sight and out of mind of most residents.
In response, scrap and salvage businesses published trade magazines and founded trade associations to advocate for their work. As they did, they distinguished themselves as modern agents of material conservation far removed from “primitive junk dealing.”

Time and again, scrap recyclers have distanced themselves from the term “junk” and its dirty connotations. During the debates over what became the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, Scrap Age defended its constituents against potential regulations requiring yards not to provide visible blight on the nation’s highways. It also instructed readers to avoid using the work “junk” in their names and descriptions of their businesses, going so far as to say “the name of this game is ‘scrap.’ Anything else is a disservice to your firm, your industry, and your future.” (See p. 127 of Cash for Your Trash for the full citation.)

Half a century after the Highway Beautification Act debates, Victory Auto Wreckers continues the rhetorical attempt to define scrap as modern rather than dirty. I look forward to seeing the new ad and wonder whether any kids in 2015 will have any different idea of what goes on inside a salvage facility after watching it. If history is a guide, attempts at an image change will face challenges.

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