Life Before Plastic: An Introduction

‘Rubbish’ is the most common thing we find on our 19th century archaeological sites. I have ‘rubbish’ in quotation marks because to us what we find isn’t rubbish, it’s the material evidence of what life was like in the early years of colonial New Zealand. The everyday items and the more unusual objects that help to tell us more about the successes and struggles of New Zealand’s first settlers and their families. Yet, to the people these items belonged to, they were rubbish; products that had served a purpose and were no longer needed. As archaeologists, it’s exciting that we’re finding 150-year old rubbish. As humans living at a time where global warming is an imminent threat to our own society, it’s concerning we’re finding 150-year old rubbish.

In the 19th century people would often dig holes in their backyard to dispose of rubbish. These rubbish pits are one of the most common features we find on archaeological sites in Christchurch. Image: T. Anderson

This is the first of a series of blog posts looking at the archaeology of 19th century Christchurch through the modern lenses of climate change and the growing problem of plastic pollution. Normally, when we write on the things we find we use an archaeological lens, asking questions like why were these artefacts disposed of? Who do they belong to? Where did they come from? Were they common or rare? What do they say about the people who disposed of them? Can they tell us more about what life was like in Christchurch in the 19th century?

In this blog series we’re going to take a different approach, asking questions like what did people use when they didn’t have plastic? How does life in the 19th century compare to now? What materials, objects and practices were present then that don’t exist now? Were these precursors to current ways of doing things? Were they better for the environment? Can we look to the past to help us now in the present? We’re still going to be looking at the archaeology of Christchurch, just interpreting it in a slightly different way.

I have multiple reasons for wanting to do this blog series. I’m 24, climate change is going to affect my life and it’s definitely going to impact on the lives of any children I have: it’s in my best interests to start debate on the topic and provide new ways of approaching it. I also want to write on this topic because it is current. One of the things we face all the time as archaeologists is having to justify our work. There are so many people out there who don’t understand what we’re doing/don’t see the value of recording our heritage/think that it’s a waste of time. When we can take what we find and put it into a framework that uses archaeological evidence to tackle modern problems then that adds even more value to the (already valuable) work we do. Finally, I want to write on it because I’ve never lived in a world where plastic doesn’t exist. Plastic has played a role in every single thing I have done in my life, from the plastic car seat I went home from the hospital in, to the plastic drink bottle I’m sipping out of now. I don’t think there’s been a single day of my life where I haven’t used a plastic object, so I think that looking at life before plastic is really interesting because modern society is untenable without it.

Count the plastic in the picture. I can see at least 25 items made of plastic, many of which I use daily to do my job (the Favourites are definitely essential). Image: C. Watson.

The Victorian era is a particularly interesting period to look back at through this modern lens of plastic pollution because it was during this time that so many of the things we now take for granted were invented. The Industrial Revolution began roughly a hundred years before the Victorian era. Technological developments in the textile industry led to more technological developments that could be used in other industries which led to even more technological developments and before you know it we went from writing with ink and quill pens in 1750 to typing on laptops in 2019 (John Green does a far better quick explanation here).

A few of the many things invented just prior to and during the Victorian era are:

  • Tin cans: In 1810 Peter Duran patented the idea, in 1813 the first commercial canning factory was opened and in 1846 mass-manufacture of tin cans began.
  • Cardboard boxes: Single sheet cardboard boxes were in use around 1817, although the exact inventor of them is not known. Corrugated cardboard was invented in 1856 and in 1871 Albert Jones patented an early style of cardboard box. It wasn’t until 1879 that the single sheet cardboard folded boxes that we use today were invented.
  • Paper bags: In 1799 Louis-Nicolas Robert invented a machine that produced rolls of paper. These were used to make rudimentary folded bags, but it wasn’t until 1852 that envelope-style paper bags were invented. These were surpassed in 1871 when Margaret Knight patented her machine that produced flat-bottomed paper bags, similar to what’s available today.
  • Plastic (kind of): The first man-made plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes who displayed it at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Called Parkesine after Parkes, it was derived from cellulose. Another early plastic was celluloid, invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1868 as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. Further advances took place at the end of the 19th century, with Bakelite invented in the early 20th

What’s notable when we look back at the Victorian era is that many of the things we now view as being more environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic were only just being invented. We predominantly excavate archaeological sites that date between 1860 and 1900. These sites were occupied throughout these years of invention, meaning we can see what people used prior to new technologies being developed, the adoption of new technologies, and then their success as they became widespread and mass manufactured. You may have picked up that all the new technologies I’ve listed above are forms of packaging. That’s because in the second part of this series we are going to look specifically at packaging, what we find in the archaeological record and how it differs to what is used today.

The second half of the 19th century strikes me as an exciting period to have lived in. It was a time of possibility: new things were being invented regularly and people were wealthier, healthier and better educated. All of this is similar to the period we live in now. Yet for the people of the 19th century there was a cost to this development, particularly for those who worked in large industrial factories and lived alongside them. In the same vein, whilst we might be benefiting from the technological developments of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, we’re currently having to deal with the consequences of those developments.

Plastic pollution is just one of these consequences, and it’s something us archaeologists see all the time. Whilst we only investigate features that were created prior to the year 1900, we come across lots of 20th century rubbish pits. Many of these 20th century pits contain plastic objects, and these objects don’t look like they’ve aged a day. When we put plastic into the ground it’s going to be there for hundreds of years- no doubt future archaeologists will study plastic artefacts in the same way we study ceramic and glass now. By looking at life before plastic hopefully we’re able to imagine a future without it.

Spot the plastic. Image: A. Trendafilov.

Clara Watson