rag picker

rag picker still life 2spilled garbage  110 years ago Toronto police were told to crack-down on garbage scavengers. As the Toronto Daily Star explained, it was all part of  new aggressive campaign to make the city more hygienic.


The city has a new source of revenue. It was tried out for the first time in yesterday’s afternoon Police Court. It is the fines imposed for interfering with a garbage receptacle placed in a lane for removal …

The majority of those fined were residents of Bracondale, Humber Bay, Islington, Todmorden, and Deer Park, who take food refuse for feeding pigs. The other unlucky ones were rag pickers who have sought in the garbage receptacles for rags. There was very little defence offered in any of the cases, and the prosecution, which as part of Dr. Sheard’s reforming, was evidently somewhat of a surprise.

…                        The Toronto Daily Star     August 12, 1905

While today the offenders would be celebrated for re-cycling, then the over-riding concern was to put in place effective waste disposal systems to check the spread of disease. The rag-pickers’ scavenging interfered with the military-like street cleaning and garbage pick-up operation. The pickers were loose canons in the urban administrators’ command of city streets.

The rag-pickers were headquartered in “The Ward”, a crowded slum district bordered by College Street to the north, Queen Street to the south, Yonge Street to the east and University Avenue to the west. The Health Department monitored the backyards where rags, paper, metal and even decomposing carcasses were sorted and stored before being sold to dealers.

Poultry bones and shells were used in the manufacture of bone handled knives, dice and buttons. Meat bones were used for glue.The sardine, fruit, meat and vegetable cans were sold for tin. Oyster shells, which are rich in phosphate were ground mixed with grain and other materials and sold as poultry feed. But the bulk of the rag-pickers trade was in old clothing and other fabric which was shredded and converted into paper or cloth.

rag picker still life with buttons

The Ward was a first-stop for destitute immigrants where they scrambled to make a living by any possible means. As one ethnic group got a toe-hold in the local economy and moved to a better area, another who needed the low rents took its place. In the two decades before the First World War, Jews from the Russian empire were the dominant group there.

Wandering far beyond The Ward’s ethnic enclave, drawing attention to himself through his street cry and bundles, the rag-picker became a highly visible symbol of foreign-ness to Torontonians.

Jewish rag picker Bloor Street West 1910 Jewish rag picker Bloor Street West 1910

The Ragman at Close Range, The Globe, Feb. 20, 1909, A5 “The Ragman at Close Range” The Globe, Feb. 20, 1909, A5

Rag-pickers organized themselves into a union to protect themselves against a group of dealers aggressively under-cutting their prices. Matters came to a head in late summer 1906 when the Health Department, which had imposed a licensing system the previous year and begun inspecting their premises, withdrew the license of a storage yard behind 108-110 Terauley Street (now Bay Street).

106-108 Terauley St.  November 21   1913 106-108 Terauley St, November, 21, 1913

To make their deputation to the Board of Control the rag-pickers walked down Terauley street, past the police station, the Synagogue and the looming Eaton’s factory to City Hall.

Rag Pickers Summoned Oct. 24, 1905     The Toronto Daily Star     October 24, 1905   p 4

Lost the Permit Aug. 2, 1906 The Toronto Daily Star     August 2, 1906   p 11

Rear of 108 Terauley Street April 17, 1914 Dept. of Public Works Rear of 108 Terauley Street April 17, 1914  Dept. of Public Works

the wardThe Ward backyards, seen from above 

north mapsouth mapGoad’s Fire Map 1913

108-110 Terauley detail showing 108-110 Terauley street

Looking north from the top of T. Eaton factorylooking north from the top of the T. Eaton factory ca. 1910 Queen’s Park in horizon

The rag-pickers felt the Health Department wanted to shut-down their operations without giving them the opportunity to comply with the new standards. They also suspected that officials were being bribed by the dealers to remove them from competition. Henry Singer, a provocative figure who tried to convert Jews to Christianity (The Star July 15, 1913 p.3) while acting as their intermediary with the larger community, spoke on their behalf. Perhaps the rag-pickers felt so marginalized as to need his representation, the dealers, on the other hand, were clearly at ease with the language and the accusations of corruption and law-breaking customary at City Hall.

Jewish missionary Henry Singer in the ward, 1912Jewish missionary Henry Singer in the Ward 1912  

RAG DEALERS’ COUNTER CHARGE Say Mr. Singer, the Missionary to the Jews, Offered to Take $200

“We’ll hear one or two persons and let them go away, “said Mayor Coatsworth at the Board of Control this morning. A deputation of Jews and other rag-pickers, etc. were out in the corridors, and filed into the chamber shortly after the Mayor spoke.

Mr. R.G. Smith spoke for the couple of hundred present, representing some 200 members of the Toronto Junk Peddlers Union. The object of the deputation was to protest against the move of the board to cancel their license. Mr. Smith went on to say that the dealers had combined, and in April last, reduced prices, so that his clients had been forced to form a union for self-protection and carry on the business themselves. The price had gone down from $1.50 per hundred to &1.25 and a $1 price was threatened by the dealers previous to this step. Mr. Smith’s clients had never been aware of any complaint of the Medical Health Officer; their premises on Terauley street had been inspected onn July 28, but no complaint was made to them at the time. If there was anything wrong they would gladly remedy it. All they asked was that the board should not be influenced by outside parties or rival  dealers.

“You don’t say it was do you?” asked the Mayor.


“We were actuated solely by the Medical Health Officers’s report, “ added his Worship.

Mr. Henry Singer, also spoke briefly on the union’s behalf, but representatives of the dealers answered back, and for a time there was a Babel in the board room.

Mr. Hamilton Cassels, who represented some of the wholesale rag dealers, deined that there was any combine. Such , he said, would be a direct contravention of the law. He was instructed that there had been no decrease in prices; also that other places, such as his clients owned, where not in the same unhealthy condition as the place complained of.

Mr. Granatstein also denied the existence of a combine and said there had been no decrease, offering “a present of $500” if it could be proved.

another logomachy followed in which he and Mr. Singer took the solo parts and the deputation joined in the chorus.

“Mr. Singer claims to have been offered $100 to stay away from the rag-pickers,” said Mr. Granatstein. “A dealer tells me that Mr. Singer offered to stay away for $200.”

“Prove it!” challenged Mr. Singer.

Sheard in Control

Dr. Sheard pointed out that an amendment to the Public Health Act in 1905 prevents the storing of rags except in a building approved by the M.H.O.

“My inspector went to the place in question,” he said. “There was a large accumulation of bones in the yard, rotting in the sun, emitting foul effluvia. I believe your Board quiet properly instructed me to cancel the permit, and I certainly intend to do so.”

Two of the rivals got to the center of the stage, and the previous babel was eclipsed by a regular fury of voices.

The Mayor had an original idea.

“We always see that the interests of the poor man are guarded,” he shouted, and the rag-pickers, taking it as an omen of victory, clapped, shouted and filed out.

The Toronto Daily Star, August 9, 1906

The unhealthy living conditions of The Ward were well-documented through photographs and reports for the Health Department. The larger population was familiar with conditions there through the the photographs of William James published in the dailies. Kevin Plummer in a Historicist article notes how, because no vestige of its built form remains, The Ward, so dominant in the early 1910s city discussions as a problem, has been erased from the public consciousness.

The Ward’s un-remembering was aided by the fact that the life the slum contained, its restless, unsettled and foreign character, was supplanted by the institutions of social stability: City Hall, banks, the courts and hospitals.

The poignancy of The Ward was embodied in its children. The Toronto Daily Star published many of James’ photographs showing them at play on the streets sporting clothing collected by the rag-pickers.These archetypal street urchins were used to solicit donations to the Star‘s annual Fresh Air campaign to send children of the poor to the country for a holiday.

Capture CTA label: Children in The Ward

The Star June 18, 1913 p. 16 Fresh Air fund The Star, Fresh Air Fund appeal, June 18, 1913 p. 16

The street was also the arena where other children would prey on the slow-moving and therefore easy target of the rag-picker. Henry Singer again advocated for them, this time to school authorities

Mustn't Annoy the Jews, April 30, 1907 The Toronto Daily Star     April 30, 1907   

From Centre Avenue, where boarding house keepers could barely remember one tenant from another in the incessant hard-luck stream of humanity, a young man made his way to the northern suburb and, after leaving his clothes in a tidy pile, vanished. Among the few details of his stay in Toronto that the police dug up was that he had briefly been a rag-picker. The boarding house at 19 Centre Avenue would crop up again eight years later in another story about a Ward resident.

Bundle of Clothes Found in Bush, Aug. 31, 1909 The Toronto Daily Star     August 31, 1905   p 9

the Ward Centre Ave. Goad's Fire Map 1913Goad’s Fire Map 1913    Centre Avenue was just east of University  

stable yard in the ward 1907

Stable yard in The Ward  1907

The state control of public space in the interest of the population’s well-being extended to the air. The street-cries of peddlars, elements of the city sound-scape since the dawn of urban life, were silenced. Rag-pickers could no longer give warning of their approach and so give the housewife time to sort through the closet in preparation of his arrival.

Noise Ragpicker cry June 22, 1912  The Toronto Daily Star   June 22, 1912

slum housing off Terauley Street 1908Slum housing off Terauley Street 1908


the Ward Centre Ave. Goad's Fire Map 1913

Drain being installed 94 Elizabeth Street, June 1912Drain being installed, rear of 94 Elizabeth Street June 1912

Through the installation of sewer pipes, electricity poles, and gas lines The Ward was woven into the city infrastructure. However, the tightly-bound community had ways of maintaining itself apart from the larger culture. For its customs in the preparation and selling food for their own, the Jews of The Ward drew curiosity along with derision.

Noble Ward Dec. 17, 1912  The Toronto Daily Star December 17, 1912                     Jewish butcher store sign, The Ward ca. 1910Jewish butcher store sign, The Ward ca. 1910

At a moment when citizens were being instructed by the Health Department on how diseases were spread through germs, there was a new dimension to how people viewed the street as a place where foreign and native, safe and dangerous elements intermingled.

Rosie Stance portrait Nine year-old Centre avenue wanderer found on Bloor street car, unable to talk.

The Toronto Daily Star Sept. 18, 1913

In the story of Rosie Stance, she is depicted as a volatile creature perhaps dangerous to others but certainly a risk herself. The article’s author plays to the sense of danger that traveled outward, the germ of anxiety that was The Ward and its denizens for Toronto’s stolidly British population.

                    A TORONTO GIRL GOING TO SLEEP FOR TWO WEEKS. She Has Done It Twice a Year for Seven Years. A  RUSSIAN JEWESS, NOW NINE YEARS OLD. Rosie Stance, Scared by a Cat When Baby, Foams at the Mouth. SHOWS SYMPTONS NOW. Apparently Will Go Into Two-Week Trance as Usual in October

A Toronto Girl Going to Sleep... Sept. 17, 1913

There is a Toronto girl, Rosie Stance, a resident of 19 Centre avenue, who goes into a trance twice a year. At any rate, that is what she has done in Russia, and now she shows every sign of doing it here. It happens every Easter and October, premonitory symptons being extreme nervousness. This has happened ever since she was two years old, when a cat jumped on her in the night and frightened her.  That, of course, was in Russia, whence the family came only a few months ago. The girl got past the immigration officers because ordinarily she looks perfectly healthy. A Toronto doctor, indeed, has pronounced her “all right,” and she therefore cannot be sent to Orillia.

When the cat jumped on Rosie, she woke up and ran around the room. Then she went into a two week sleep. There is foam on her mouth when the semi-annual repetition takes place.

Twice a year, in the autumn and at Easter, Rosie, who is 9, passes into a trance and cannot be wakened for at least two weeks at a time. When she wakens she eats very heavily, then lives as a normal child until the next attack. But her brain is badly affected by this, and she cannot talk, except in disjointed, meaningless words.

She wanders away from her home and on the streets becomes the butt of children who can’t understand. She can only whimper from time to time like a wounded animal, and the first time she was found it took the officer a full day to locate her home on Centre avenue. Her parents are Russian Jews and have three other children, but they are very poor and dare not incur the poor man’s nightmare, a heavy doctor bill. So Rosie, who is showing strange symptons of the usual autumnal sickness was led crying back to her home this morning having escaped yesterday.

Do you scavenge from sidewalks? Pick from thrift stores? Dive in dumpsters? How do you feel about others taking from your garbage or recycling bins?

rag picker shoppers 1

In Cedarvale many well-off residents collect recyclables in the park as park stewarts and also from recycling bins before the city pick-up. They raise thousands of dollars for charity in this way.

I use mother of pearl buttons and other materials sourced from vintage and thrift shops. Recently I came across a souvenir of Taiwan boat made of horn that will provide me with a lot of raw material.  Deborah Sanderson

I feel a visceral reaction when I see someone going through my garbage. When I lived near Spadina people would dump their garbage in my bin which I resented because one pays for waste disposal according to bin size.

In terms of recycling, they tend to take out the more valuable stuff and I resent this because it breaks up the city’s revenue stream.

I leave bottles out for the guy who comes every week. I leave them outside the bin in the early morning. Walking the dog at that time I see him doing his rounds.

I grew up in Earlscourt. As a child I would hear the junk peddler coming by his cry of “Kerry Kerry Koe”. He used a horse and wagon.

We have a car collision/repair business as commercial tenants. There are metal scavengers who regularly come to pick materials. I leave out recyclable objects and materials for them at this yard. Sadly, one day I left out a perfectly serviceable water bed which had a copper element. Not realizing the value of the bed the picker cannibalized the copper and trashed the rest.

There’s an elderly Asian lady with a shopping cart who comes by on recycling pick-up days. I leave my bottles outside the bin for her convenience. She takes the cart down Bathurst to the Beer Store on Dupont for the deposit.

I run a business just around the corner called Bicycles on St. Clair. Throughout the year I’ve been collecting punctured tires with the view to donating them to Cubans who, because of the poverty and trade embargo, have the habit of repairing tires until there’s more repair material than original tire left. Unfortunately, when I went to the Canadian Consulate in Havana to discuss how I could donate the tires they were only interested in my bringing them into the country as a for-profit enterprise. I’m not sure what I should now do with the tires, in my mind I had been storing them to send to Cuba, but with the pick-up in business at this point I no longer have the space to store them. (This individual was referred to Abu at Accents who promised to assist in the logistics of the donation.)

I have a button collection that I started as a child. I have them organized in jars by colour. The experience of searching for buttons in thrift stores is deeply satisfying to me. I become absorbed in the details of each button appreciating them through sight and touch. It’s a contemplative process.

A guy goes through our bins every week and takes the cans and crushes them with his foot. There’s a metal yard at Dundas and Jane where guys go in with push-carts and wagons. You see others in pick-ups loaded to the limit.

My grandparents grew up in The Ward, on York Street.

I lived in a town in Albania last year where there was no government-run garbage pick-up. One brought it to the dump and entered it very cautiously because the entrance had resident dogs, cats, rats hanging out. The Roma scavenged from the dump and then sold the salvageable clothing on the street.

My grandfather Wolf Wolbromski, who changed his name to William Wolfe was a junk peddler in Toronto. I tell his story on my blog

My grandfather, who grew up in Montreal, used to sing-out “Rags Bones and Bottles” in the way he remembered hearing it as a child. In the movie, Lies My Father Told Me, a six year old boy travels with his grandfather on a horse-drawn cart through alleyways of Montreal calling out to residents for their old junk. He was known as the rag and bone man.

In Montreal I visited the Schiller Brothers button factory on St. Laurent when it was still in operation in the 1970s.

he hears bottle collectors rummaging through his bins in early morning

trees wonder what he’s wondering                  the moon continues to state its case

he’s working with spaces she leaves in her writing                  one more secret

in the newspaper ghost bears stare at him from a snowstorm

how close they are to being human               how far he is from living in their world

reading her ‘you’ as if it were him     enough words for everything

enough synaptic connections to account for all the stars in our galaxy

correlatives in the neurons for each snowflake fallen since he met her

his Helen is only one woman     his composite method of composition

not Zeuxis confabulating              the remains of what were left behind to reconstruct the world these remains imply (1)

she’s not defined by her fingertips she is the infinity (2)

she reads his ‘you’     as if it’s his ‘I’

(1) Toni Morrison   (2) Judith Jameson

                                                                                                         Nicholas Power

rag picker repairathon  Congratulations on a great market day Repairathon!

Further Reading/Viewing/Listening

Street-cleaning and the disposal of a city’s wastes: methods and results and the effect upon public health, public morals, and municipal prosperity,  New York 1898

“The Ragpickers Territory” 1928 film documentary of the Parisian ragpickers living in the dedicated zone, musee historique environnement urbain

Betty Boop – Any Rags  1932

“The Roaring Twenties” historical soundscape of New York by Emily Thompson including peddler street cries


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