A rag-picker’s harsh life on Mulberry Street

Rag-picker: It’s a job title that ceased to exist in New York after the turn of the 20th century.

But it used to be a career choice of sort for poor residents, who eked out a living sorting through refuse on city streets.

Cloth, paper, glass—they’d resell whatever they found to recyclers.

So many (typically Italian) rag-pickers lived in Lower Manhattan that one Mulberry Street nook was called Rag-Picker’s Court.

It’s unclear exactly where the court was, but this 1881 New York Times article mentions several Mulberry Street addresses.

“A cellar in the front house opens to the street, and peering down one sees a score of men and women half buried in piles of dirty rags and paper which they are sorting and packing for the mill,” explains America Revisited, published in 1882, about Rag-Picker’s Court.

“Lines in the yard are strung with them. . . . Some have been drawn through the wash-tub to get rid of the worst of the dirt, but for the most part they are hung up just as they are taken from the bags, and left for the rain to cleanse and the sun to bleach them.”

[Above illustration of Rag-Picker's Court from 1871; photo by Alice Austen, rag-pickers in 1896]

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3 Responses to “A rag-picker’s harsh life on Mulberry Street”

  1. Andrew Smith Says:

    We do still have these. The folks who collect cans and bottles for recycling are the exact same thing.

  2. ramon Says:

    not to mention the countless people who go through the trash for their own collection- such as stinking bums, filthy hoarders, and the like.

  3. New York City’s free-roaming, trash-eating pigs | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the 19th century, what wasn’t dumped in the rivers by carting companies or scavenged by rag-pickers piled up on streets, producing a stench dubbed “a nasal […]

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