George Waring and the Legacy of Clean and White

george_waring_mdToday is the anniversary of Col. George E. Waring’s death. Waring, most famous for the sanitary reforms he developed as Street Commissioner of New York City, had been appointed by President McKinley to investigate sanitation in Cuba. There, he contracted yellow fever, which killed him at the age of 65.

Waring had immediate and enduring influence on the sanitation of two major American cities. He developed a sewer system for Memphis that alleviated that city’s chronic cholera and yellow fever epidemics. In New York City, he modernized waste management, establishing the “White Wings” street-cleaners (teams dressed in immaculate white uniforms to sweep the streets), and transforming sanitation work from patronage to a necessary city service.

Waring’s work saved thousands of lives and made urban life both cleaner and safer. The way he conducted his work also revealed attitudes about waste and race widespread in late nineteenth-century American life. In New York City, Waring expanded the department to scavenge value from discards. To do so, he hired Italian immigrants, “a race,” Waring reasoned, “with a genius for rag-and-bone picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food.”

C&WcoverThis attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace in the 1890s. Sanitary engineers, sociologists, and advertisements have all left evidence that peoples other than native-born whites in the United States were seen as somehow more fit to handle waste or otherwise be exposed to waste. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available Nov. 13 from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Waring is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.

Waring’s death from yellow fever was a reminder that the hazards he sought to eliminate endured in the Americas. His life, and his life’s work, showed the complex ways in which perception of those hazards shaped American society. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.

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