A rag-picker in Paris, ca, 1899 - 1901.

A Rag-picker, or Chiffonnier, is term for someone who makes a living by rummaging through refuse in the streets to collect material for salvage. Scraps of cloth and paper could be turned into cardboard, broken glass could be melted down and reused, and even dead cats and dogs could be skinned to make clothes.

The rag-pickers in 13th and early 20th Century did not recycle the materials themselves; they would simply collect whatever they could find and turn it over to a "master rag-picker" (usually a former rag-picker) who would, in turn, sell itgenerally by weightto wealthy investors with the means to convert the materials into something more profitable.[1][2]

Although it was solely a job for the lowest of the working classes, rag-picking was considered an honest occupation, more on the level of street sweeper than of a beggar. In Paris, for instance, rag-pickers were regulated by law: their operations were restricted to certain times of night, and they were required to return any unusually valuable items to the owner or to the authorities.[1] When Eugène Poubelle introduced the garbage can in 1884, he was criticized in the French newspapers for meddling with the rag-pickers' livelihoods.[3] Modern sanitation and recycling programs ultimately caused the profession to decline, though it did not disappear entirely; rag and bone men are not uncommon in England today.

Rag-picking is still widespread in Third World countries today, such as in Mumbai, India, where it offers the poorest in society around the rubbish and recycling areas a chance to earn a hand-to-mouth supply of money. In 2015, the Environment Minister of India declared a national award to recognise the service rendered by rag-pickers. The award, with a cash prize of Rs. 1.5 lakh, is for three best rag pickers and three associations involved in innovation of best practices. [4]



  1. 1 2 Edwards, Henry Sutherland (1893). Old and New Paris: Its history, its people, and its places. Cassell and Co. pp. 360–365.
  2. The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (1904). "The Workers in Waste Products". Public Opinion. 36.
  3. Lynch, Hannah (1901). French life in town and country. Putnam. pp. 278–279.
  4. http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/rag-pickers-services-will-be-recognised-by-government-to-give-national-award/article7382780.ece
  5. Francis Saltus Saltus (1890). Shadows and Ideals. C. W. Moulton.
  6. Grafton, John (1977). New York in the nineteenth century. Dover Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-486-23516-5.
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