Waste and Want A Social History of Trash

Susan Strasser

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

368 Pages


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Winner of the Abel Wolman Award of the Public Works Historical Society

Susan Strasser's pathbreaking histories of housework and the rise of the mass market have become classics in the literature of consumer culture. Waste and Want examines an essential but neglected part of that culture—the trash it produces—and finds in it an unexpected wealth of meaning.

Before the twentieth century, trash was nearly nonexistent. With goods and money scarce, everything possible was reused. Strasser paints a vivid picture of an America where scavenger pigs roamed the streets, "swill children" collected kitchen garbage, and peddlers traded manufactured goods for rags and bones.

Over the last hundred years, however, that way of life has been replaced by mass consumption, disposable goods, and waste on a previously unimaginable scale. Strasser charts the triumph of "disposable" goods—paper cups, toilet paper, packaged food—those signature products of modern life. And she shows how Americans became hooked on convenience, fashion, and constant technological change—as the mountains of garbage rose higher and higher.

Waste and Want recaptures a hidden part of our social history, vividly illustrating that what counts as trash depends on who's counting, and that what we throw away defines us as much as what we keep.


Praise for Waste and Want

"Susan Strasser reads our American history in our tea leaves—and countless tons of other domestic garbage—as she traces the changing meanings of waste and thrift from Colonial times to the present."—The Boston Globe

"An illuminating perspective on the American encounter with the world of goods, and a major contribution to American cultural history."—Jackson Lears, author of Fables of Abundance

"Shows to startling effect how radically both our notions of trash and our means of coping with it have altered over the years."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"Strasser is a superb researcher."—The New York Times Book Review

"Wonderful. This fine book makes a powerful point. 'Recycling' is not innovation, just the resumption of an age-old human practice. It was the idea of disposability that was new, lazy, inelegant—and perhaps now receding into that obscurity reserved for failed experiments."—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

"Susan Strasser brilliantly shows how an inquiry into trash can lead us to see American consumer culture in a new light. Waste and Want makes sense of garbage: it helps us to understand the cost—to ourselves and the environment—of our widespread belief that buying consuming , and throwing out are measures of the good life."—Kathy Peiss, author of Hope in a Jar

"Susan Strasser has excavated from two centuries of trash a fascinating story that reveals as much about what has mattered to Americans as what has not. A model of imaginative, groundbreaking research."—Lizabeth Cohen, author of Making a New Deal

"Waste and Want takes the mundane, everyday problem of trash and reveals its larger social significance, fusing the personal and the public in imaginative ways."—Martin V. Melosi, author of Garbage in the Cities"

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Susan Strasser

  • Susan Strasser is the author of the award-winning Never Done: A History of American Housework and Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation. A professor of history at the University of Delaware, she lives near Washington, D.C.