My name is Talia Makowsky, and I use she/her pronouns, and I am the Visitor Services Coordinator here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. One of my favorite things about my job is giving tours of our special exhibits because I get to learn all about new material and new stories that we have here at the Museum. I never expected to learn about the scrap yard industry in the United States, but now I have a whole lot that I want to share with you.
Walking into a scrap yard can be really overwhelming. There’s lots of big materials, there’s cars and buildings and just huge piles of scrap metal. So too, is our Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling exhibit a little bit confusing. We have a lot of content, and a lot of stories about the families who were involved in the scrap yard industry.
But I’m here to guide you through, just like a piece of scrap metal is guided through a scrap yard, broken down into its component parts, and then sorted and changed so that it can be used again, we’re going to walk through this exhibit, figure out about all the tools and techniques that people used, and learn why the scrap yard industry is so important today.
The scrap yard industry was pretty easy to get into for immigrants who came to America. You didn’t have to have a lot of money, you didn’t have to speak a lot of English, and if you could trade trash, you could slowly build a business that was actually pretty successful.
Take for example, Morris Schapiro. He came to the US with just a few dollars in his pocket, after being pickpocketed on his way over from Germany. After trying to find luck with his family, who kind of pushed him out of the business, he started his own company, the Boston Iron and Metal Company in Baltimore. He grew such a successful business that he actually bought out his family’s company.
Morris Schapiro was so successful that he actually started scrapping entire battleships after World War I. Take for example, the USS Nansemond, which was originally the USS Pennsylvania. One day, when he was at a shipyard with his son, picking out different ships to scrap, he spotted the Pennsylvania and he realized it was the same ship that he had come over from Germany. Morris Schapiro was very pleased to be able to buy the ship and scrap it himself, really coming full circle in his success story.
So many of these scrap yards were owned and are owned by white men. Although, of course, that is changing today. However, we don’t have a lot of information from the past about African American scrappers, for example. Though we do know that more of them got involved after the Civil War.
For women, most of the jobs that were available were usually low paying, high work jobs. So, for example, rag picking. Many women would have to stand in a room and tear apart rags, in order to make them ready to scrap. These jobs were very grueling, much like the rest of the garment industry, and women had to work long hours for low pay. However, there are some women who managed to make it to the top.
One of these women who managed to run their own business was Marion Langdon. She didn’t start running the business, she actually helped her husband out. But when he passed, she got more involved in the business. There’s actually pictures of her, working in the scrap yard, using heavy tools to break apart large pieces of metal. She worked in Idaho for a long time and her son even wrote a book about her called My Mother Can Beat Up Your Father. Definitely worth a read.
So, now that the scrap material is in the yard, scrappers had to figure out a way to sort all of these different materials. One way they did it was through magnets. Metal with iron in it, also known as ferrous metal, is attracted to magnets, so they can use these to sort out the different parts that were, that were iron, versus non-ferrous, or didn’t have iron in it.
As the businesses grew, so too did the magnets. At the 1904 World’s Fair, they unveiled a giant electro-magnet which allowed them to pick up and move huge amounts of material with very little effort. This was a big deal for scrap yards and a lot of different businesses soon got their own electromagnets that they could use to transport material from place to place in the yard. This saved a lot of time and a lot of manpower, so that people could start in different jobs at the yard and find new ways to break down materials.
So ferrous, or iron-based metals and nonferrous, metals without iron in them, are all really useful because you can recycle them over and over again and they don’t degrade. Nonferrous, in particular, have a lot of special properties that make them especially useful for different kinds of components.
Take, for example, aluminum. Aluminum is very lightweight, so you can use it in aluminum cans. Copper conducts electricity, so you can use it in buildings and electronics. Zinc can withstand a lot of pressure, so, for example, this shoe mold is used to create the soles of shoes, by putting in a lot of rubber. The zinc doesn’t break though, despite the pressure from the rubber. And, when the company wants to change the design of the shoe, they can simply melt down the zinc and reuse it, or they can reuse it for another purpose without losing any of the material.
So, as we discussed, scrappers used magnets to sort out ferrous and nonferrous metals, but for the nonferrous metals, they still had to figure out what else was inside of them. So, they used different technology.
First, back in the day, scrappers would just their touch, sight, and even taste materials in order to figure out what was in them. Some scrappers used grinding wheels, because when you pressed the metal against the wheel, it would cause different colored sparks and even different smells. Using their senses, they could figure out what was inside of it.
Eventually scrap yards started to use chemical testing, but chemical testing required a lot of time and equipment, and so it wasn’t very efficient. Eventually, scrappers used spectrometers. Spectrometers use light in order to identify what’s inside of them. This is an example of a handheld spectrometer. Now, real spectrometers cost ten thousand dollars or more, so this one is just a play example, but you can use it to figure out what is inside our samples over here. When I press the light onto the sample, you can see what it’s made up of. Real spectrometers would actually give you a reading on the back, to see what was in the materials, but this one is still fun to use.
When you go to a scrap yard today, you’ll probably see people wearing safety equipment, such as a brightly colored vest, gloves, steel-toe boots, and construction helmets. Now these safety guidelines weren’t always around. Originally, scrap yards were very independent and very competitive. They didn’t want to work together. But, as they grew larger they realized if they worked together, they could actually advocate for the industry and for the people working within it.
That led to the creation of different trade associations. This included the National Association of Waste Materials Dealers and the Institute for Scrap Iron and Steel. These two associations worked to protect the rights of their workers, to form unions, and to advocate the government for protections of the scrap industry.
In the 1950s the Institute for Scrap Iron and Steel created what they called “Safety Week”, and, with the National Association of Waste Material Dealers, they awarded different companies that were working to protect their workers through safety regulations. This is when this type of equipment really became the standard.
As these associations grew they faced more challenges and decided to come together into one association called the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, or ISRI. ISRI was a big help in creating this exhibit, and they have a lot of information about scrap recycling today.
So the scrap industry has always been affected by what’s going on in the US, and wartime has actually been a big part of why the scrap industry has grown. For example, during the Civil War, scrap businesses grew from just a handful to thousands. And, during World War I, the scrap industry grew from $100 million annually to $1 billion annually.
The reason for this growth was because scrappers would either provide the government so that they could build boats and planes, or scrapping was necessary to recycle all these materials that were left on the battlefield after the war was over.
World War II was a very big part of the scrap industry. The government actually encouraged regular people to donate their items to scrappers after they were through with them. They encouraged this through the use of different propaganda including posters like this one here. They would encourage people to donate their metal, aluminum cans, paper, and even cooking oil, to scrappers, so that they could be made into different things for the war.
What would you put on a poster if you were trying to encourage people to recycle? What kinds of pictures and language would you use to show them how important it is to reuse their materials and protect the environment?
So, while scrap yards had a better reputation during World War II, during the 70s and 80s, people became more aware of environmentalism and recycling. And so, scrap yards sort of had a challenge on their hands. While they were considered the original recyclers because they were remaking all of this material, they had trouble figuring out ways to recycle this material without causing pollution. Their big piles of tires and scrap and junk was considered an eyesore and people thought it was just a big trash pile.
The scrap industry is a very important part of our consumer culture today. So many of our products that we use and wear and have are made up of scrap materials. Take, for example, aluminum cans. Most of the cans in your pantry are actually made of 100 percent recycled tin. Different things like our cell phones are made up of lots of different recycled parts and you should always make sure to see if you can recycle whatever you have.
Other companies are trying to make more recycled goods, such as this chair from Ikea, and different shoes and socks that companies have been making. These products have become very popular as people become more aware of the effect their consumer habits have on the environment.
So, another challenge that scrappers face today is figuring out how to recycle new technologies. As the demand for new cell phones and computers becomes more and more intense, more and more technology is being sent into scrap yards and they have to figure out what to do with it. These kinds of electronics are made of lots of different parts such as gold, silver, platinum, copper, and even lead. They also can have toxic materials in them, making them dangerous for people to handle.
As the scrap industry continues to grow and face challenges in our society, they’re going to have to figure out ways to recycle these materials. One way to do that is to encourage companies to design for recycling, as in, companies should create products that are easier to recycle, from the start.
In order to encourage companies to design for recycling, you should do your research and figure out who is actually creating products that can be recycled later. Instead of buying your next phone from someone who isn’t giving that thought, you should try to find a company that is actually giving thought to the way that their materials are entering the environment.