Labour Studies Index

Updated: 2022-05-16

From Scavengers to Sanitation Workers: Practices of Purification and the Making of Civic Employees in Toronto, 1890–1920

Document type Article
Author Hurl, Chris
Journal Labour / Le Travail
Volume 79
Date 2017 Spring
ISSN 1911-4842
Pages 81-104


In confronting the filth and decay of the early 20th century city, civic reformers often undertook ambitious programs that sought to not only eliminate the sources of disease from the urban environment but also to civilize urban dwellers, teaching them to live in pure and morally hygienic ways. Historical studies have tended to focus on the consumption side of this process, looking at how sanitary reformers and public health officials worked to establish fundamentally new understandings of household waste and its disposal, laying the foundation for the "throwaway" society of the 1950s and 1960s. However, they have tended to neglect the parallel efforts to fashion a new kind of city worker. Drawing on Toronto as a case study, this paper examines how the rise of a modern, scientifically managed waste regime in the early 20th century contributed to fundamentally new conceptions of civic employment, premised on the "purification" of the worker from the contaminating influence of neighbourhood-based patronage networks and an informal waste economy. I explore how efforts to expunge filth from urban space were paralleled by struggles to disentangle class from community-based solidarities in the labour process. Moreover, I explore how this contributed to the view that public workers somehow stood apart from the community as an anonymous and uniform service. I conclude by discussing the implications in how we think about city workers and their struggles today.