A rag-and-bone man (or bag board or totter) collects unwanted household items and sells them to merchants. Traditionally this was a task performed on foot, with the scavenged materials (which included rags, bones and various metals) kept in a small bag slung over the shoulder. Some rag-and-bone men used a cart, sometimes pulled by horse or pony.
In the 19th century, rag-and-bone men typically lived in extreme poverty, surviving on the proceeds of what they collected each day. Conditions improved following the Second World War, but the trade declined during the latter half of the 20th century. Lately (2007-2017), however, due in part to the soaring price of scrap metal, rag-and-bone men can once again be seen at work in many Third World (as well as some First World) countries.
In the UK, 19th-century rag-and-bone men scavenged unwanted rags, bones, metal and other waste from the towns and cities where they lived.Henry Mayhew's 1851 report, London Labour and the London Poor, estimates that in London, between 800 and 1,000 "bone-grubbers and rag-gatherers" lived in lodging houses, garrets and "ill-furnished rooms in the lowest neighbourhoods."
The bone-picker and rag-gatherer may be known at once by the greasy bag which he carries on his back. Usually he has a stick in his hand, and this is armed with a spike or hook, for the purpose of more easily turning over the heaps of ashes or dirt that are thrown out of the houses, and discovering whether they contain anything that is saleable at the rag-and-bottle or marine-store shop.-- Henry Mayhew
These bone-grubbers, as they were sometimes known, would typically spend nine or ten hours searching the streets of London for anything of value, before returning to their lodgings to sort whatever they had found. In rural areas where no rag merchants were present, rag-and-bone men often dealt directly with rag paper makers, but in London they sold rag to the local trader. White rag could fetch two-to-three pence per pound, depending on condition (all rag had to be dry before it could be sold). Coloured rag was worth about two pence per pound. Bones, worth about the same, could be used as knife handles, toys and ornaments, and when treated, for chemistry. The grease extracted from them was also useful for soap-making. Metal was more valuable; an 1836 edition of Chambers's Edinburgh Journal describes how "street-grubber[s]" could be seen scraping away the dirt between the paving stones of non-macadamised roads, searching for horseshoe nails. Brass, copper and pewter was valued at about four-to-five pence per pound. In a typical day, a rag-and-bone man might expect to earn about sixpence.
Mayhew's report indicates that many who worked as rag-and-bone men did so after falling on hard times, and generally lived in squalor. Although they usually started work well before dawn, they were not immune to the public's ire; in 1872 several rag-and-bone men in Westminster caused complaint when they emptied the contents of two dust trucks to search for rags, bones and paper, blocking people's path.
In Paris, ragpickers were regulated by law and could operate only at night. They were required to return unusually valuable items either to their owners or to the authorities. When Eugène Poubelle introduced the garbage can in 1884, he was criticised by French newspapers for meddling with the ragpickers' livelihood.
A 1954 report in The Manchester Guardian mentions that some men could make as much as £25 a day collecting rags. Most used handcarts rather than a bag, and some used a pony and cart, giving out rubbing stones[nb 1] in exchange for the items they collected. In 1958 a Manchester Guardian reporter accompanied one rag-and-bone man, John Bibby, as he made his rounds through Chorlton and Stretford, near Manchester. For his handcart's load, which comprised rags, furs, shoes, scrap car parts, a settee and other furniture, he made about £2.
The rag-and-bone trade fell into decline though; in the 1950s Manchester and Salford had, between them, around sixty rag merchants, but this had fallen to about twelve by 1978, many having moved into the scrap metal trade. Local merchants blamed several factors, including demographic changes, for the decline of their industry.
A newspaper report of 1965 estimates that in London, only a "few hundred" rag-and-bone men remained, possibly due to competition from more specialised trades such as corporation dustmen, and pressure from property developers to build on rag merchants' premises.
Despite the BBC's popular TV comedy Steptoe and Son, which helped maintain the rag-and-bone man's status in British folklore, by the 1980s they were mostly gone. Lately, rising scrap metal prices have prompted their return, although most drive vans rather than a horse and cart, and announce their presence by megaphone, causing some members of the public to complain about the noise created.