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Rag & Bones
Posted: 12 October 2009 08:56 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Perhaps I don’t know how to use the site very well, but saw a thread called Pig and Whistle.
The other day I was reading British author Anne Perry, and she uses, in one novel, the term Rag & Bones Shop.
Can I have an explanation of what this might have been,please? It was set in the mid 1800’s. Thanks.

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Posted: 12 October 2009 09:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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A rag and bone man is British expression for a junk dealer, so a rang and bones shop is a junk store. The phrase “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart” is from Yeats’ poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and has been alluded many times in literature

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Posted: 12 October 2009 10:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The name arises because old rags and old bones do have a resale value, though not very great; making one’s living by gathering and selling rags and bones put one near the bottom of the economic and social ladders.

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Posted: 12 October 2009 10:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Just for context: in the 1960s there still were rag-and-bone men who drove horse-drawn carts around London, and if you had any junk you wanted taking away you hailed them as they clopped down the street. This was of course the setting of the great BBC sitcom “Steptoe and Son”.

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Posted: 12 October 2009 11:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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It was a familiar sight in my youth, the rag and bone man in his horse and cart slowly parading through the streets, heralded by the cry, “Any old rags-a!”. Of course, Steptoe and Son immortalized them on TV but they were already in decline at the time of that program’s popularity in the 70s.

All the roving street-sellers have disappeared now: the knife grinder, the French onion seller (usually on a bicycle, both he and his vehicle festooned with strings of onions - they used to hop over from Brittany on the ferry), and many more. The milkman still hangs on in some areas, his horse and cart, which lasted until the mid-60s, replaced by an electronic float.

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Posted: 12 October 2009 02:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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The scrap iron man, one of the hawker families, still makes routine forays into our area (north east England), driving an old pickup truck and shouting “Ragbone! Ragbone!” There must be some mileage in it (literally and figuratively) - he’s a millionaire. And he’s useful for carting away unwanted, heavy stuff, so it’s a win-win situation.

I got four boxes!!!!

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Posted: 13 October 2009 02:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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And there’s a rag and bone shop (though whether it’s called that I’m not sure) in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. It’s run by a Mr. Venus, and Silas Wegg comes to visit his own leg there from time to time. I mention this in part in the hope that someone might have more insight into why Wegg’s leg was there in the first place. I’ve wondered if it was a more extreme form of blood or organ donation that the truly destitute might have engaged in at the time. There’s never a reference to an injury or a battle wound, at least none that I can remember.

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Posted: 13 October 2009 07:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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My recollection of Mr. Venus is that his primary occupation was as a taxidermist, which is how he acquired Wegg’s leg, but had all manner of objects in his store.  I don’t believe that it was described as a rag & bone shop.

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Posted: 13 October 2009 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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"the French onion seller (usually on a bicycle, both he and his vehicle festooned with strings of onions - they used to hop over from Brittany on the ferry)”.
I wonder about this. I remember my mother answering the door to these folk when I was a kid but how did they get so far north to Manchester with produce still left to sell? And on a bike. Lorry loads of onions must have been involved with another pantechnicon carrying rustic French bikes, berets and striped shirts?

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Posted: 13 October 2009 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I remember reading about the street cry “pots for rags” by a trader like a rag and bone man and there is speculation about it here: http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/55/messages/175.html

I know Steptoe and Son was sold to an American network and rebranded Sanford and Son who were black and ran a junkyard (I have never seen an episode). Brits still say junk shop but maybe scrap yard for junkyard? What was the Sanfords’ profession called?

“As mean as a junkyard dog” is an American simile I have come across too.

[ Edited: 13 October 2009 08:03 AM by venomousbede ]
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Posted: 13 October 2009 01:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Brits still say junk shop but maybe scrap yard for junkyard? What was the Sanfords’ profession called?

Junk dealer.

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Posted: 13 October 2009 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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WOW! So many replies.  I am appreciative and very grateful, thank you all so much. I truly mean it. What a great site.

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Posted: 14 October 2009 07:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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venomousbede - 13 October 2009 07:35 AM

“the French onion seller (usually on a bicycle, both he and his vehicle festooned with strings of onions - they used to hop over from Brittany on the ferry)”.
I wonder about this. I remember my mother answering the door to these folk when I was a kid but how did they get so far north to Manchester with produce still left to sell? And on a bike. Lorry loads of onions must have been involved with another pantechnicon carrying rustic French bikes, berets and striped shirts?

Not sure about the North but I’m talking about Portsmouth on the South Coast, directly opposite Brittany, a trip of less that 2 hours. The onion sellers certainly came over with their bikes to ply their trade locally. In fact they later became organized and started their own ferry service, still in business as Brittany Ferries, although now serving the tourist trade. We still have a French market every week here with the Bretons setting up their stalls and selling their produce.

I haven’t a clue how much farther North they went, it certainly doesn’t seem economically feasible or even practical that they would work up in Manchester, so I don’t know who those guys were.

[ Edited: 14 October 2009 07:08 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 15 October 2009 05:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Your crowd sound authentic, aldi. I recall ours were French-looking and, to be honest, I cannot remember if they had bikes. Maybe they were out-of-work actors schooled in basic French-sounding ‘oh hon he hon, quel petty ongfong’ stuff and it was an easily-achieved scam as hardly anyone speaks French in the UK. More likely they were French guys trucked up north.
I can remember ads for La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) processed cheese cubes in foil where a stereotypical French guy said “Oh, ce belle buh cheese!” - they couldn’t even risk the word fromage in monoglot Britain.  And some cologne with the catchphrase “Parfum de toilette spray” as in eau de toilette, maybe targetted at sophisticated ladies who saw beyond the English use of toilet. It must be very risky using foreign words or phrases in commercials in English-speaking countries.

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Posted: 22 October 2009 12:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I think there is a distinction to be made betweeen “rags & bones” and “junk”. Rags and bones were both once valuable industrial raw materials. Until the mid-19th century, rags were an extremely important source of cellulose fibre for papermaking. After collection, they were carefully sorted to separate all the non-cellulosic materials (wool, silk, metal, buttons, etc.) before further processing. Rags were quite an important item of international trade, being imported by the shipload by important papermaking countries such as the U.K. During the Napoleonic wars, the size of British newspapers was at one time restricted by law, because of the shortage of imported rags.
Bones were a source of collagen for making glue, well into the 20th century. Synthetic glues are quite recent arrivals on the industrial scene. A “rag and bone man” was much more of a waste recycling intermediary than a mere junk dealer. “junk” would at best have been a sideline. Rag and bone men were mostly itinerant, collecting from door to door; “rag and bone shop” seems to me a sad misnomer, bespeaking a lack of technical and historical information. Perhaps, however, when rags were replaced by wood fibre, and animal glue by synthetics, some “rag-and-bone men” may have made a professional switchover to less specialized junk dealing, with the term “rag-and-bone shop” remaining as an archaic survival.

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Posted: 24 October 2009 03:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Rags are still recycled, though I’m not sure what for now. Most charity shops (in the UK at least) will have a dealer who pays by the kilo for unsaleable fabric items that have been donated. Charity shops are quite pleased if you can presort what you are giving them into bags marked ‘for sale’ and ‘for rag’.

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