New York moms: don’t toss trash out the window

New York City has always had a complicated relationship with the garbage it produces. From the city’s earliest days, trash was dumped in the street, thrown in the rivers, or burned.


In the 19th century, rich neighborhoods hired dependable private street cleaners. The rest of the city relied on free-roaming pigs and rag pickers.

Finally in the 1890s, a corps of sanitation men nicknamed the White Wings and led by a Civil War veteran turned “sanitary engineer” launched a war on filth—now known to be a source of many diseases.

GarbageoldtruckThe White Wings helped clean up the city. But even in the 20th century, New Yorkers were still tossing their garbage on city streets.

To help combat this, a city campaign in the 1920s and 1930s aimed its message squarely at city mothers.

This open letter above, from the archives of the New York Academy of Medicine, sums up what the Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness hoped to accomplish.

Among the committee’s other projects: switching from open garbage wagons (top left) to sealed trucks (below right), and challenging New Yorkers to reinvent a better public trash can—first prize a cool $500.

GarbagenewtruckFor more fascinating info on New York and the garbage the city produces, the New York Academy of Medicine is running a lecture series in partnership the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE Global, called Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris and Disposal.

[Photos: New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health archive]

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12 Responses to “New York moms: don’t toss trash out the window”

  1. Richard Kenyon Says:

    Both trucks were photographed in front of building marked “Fitzgibbon & Crisp. Inc.” I wonder if F&C was a truck body builder? Neither truck has front wheel brakes, and both have solid rubber tires, making for a very bumpy ride, even at low speed. The car visible in the first image appears to be either a Packard or possibly a Buick from the early twenties. Buick copied the Packard radiator design for a while until Packard sued General Motors and forced Buick to stop imitating their design.

  2. ReadingOtherPeople Says:

    Reblogged this on Reading Other People.

  3. Terry Morris Says:

    What did the winning garbage can design look like?

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I don’t know but I’m hoping to uncover an image!

  5. NYAMHistory (@NYAMHistory) Says:

    We have an image in our collections advertising that garbage can contest, but haven’t unturned any photographs of the winner. More photographs and info about our collections related to early sanitation history in New York here:

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Super, thanks!

  7. Richard Kenyon Says:

    My earlier question is answered by looking at the lower right corner of the dump body truck, where the origin of the photo can be assumed. It says that F&C were aluminum body builders located in Trenton, N. J. These shots were probably taken before the trucks were delivered the NYC sanitation dept., at the factory in Trenton.

  8. Tim Says:

    Growing up in NYC in the 60s I remember the Sanitation Department’s cleanup campaign featuring a cartoon character named Phil D. Basket. I can still sing the jingle from the TV commercial and there was a big mock up of Phil D. Basket in Union Square.

  9. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I couldn’t resist looking up Phil D. Basket. Here he is, part of NYU’s New York Department of Sanitation Museum Project:

  10. One of the worst jobs in 19th century New York | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] apparently worked for a contractor, who bid to take care of unsanitary things like dead animals, trash, and human […]

  11. nyamrarebooks Says:

    You can see an image of the prize winning waste basket published in Popular Mechanics in July of 1931:

  12. New York’s filth inspired this West Side fountain | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] trains. Manure piled up on streets. Milk carried deadly bacteria. Water wasn’t always pure. Garbage was often tossed out of tenement […]

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