Sunday 9 May 2021

Victorian Object Lessons: Charlotte Brontë, Textile Recycling and the Hidden Stories of Childhood



This is one of the ‘Little Books’ created by Charlotte Brontë in 1830 when she was 14 years old, an edition of The Young Men’s Magazine which she and her brother Branwell regularly produced from 1829 onwards. The size of a matchbox, it was recently bought at auction by the Brontë Parsonage Museum for £500,000. Its tiny size and neat but cramped handwriting charmingly suggest the miniature worlds of childhood.

 Yet this homemade book conceals hidden stories. The paper on which Charlotte wrote her magazine was scavenged; perhaps it came from a discarded sugar bag in the kitchen of Haworth Parsonage, or from an advertisement which had been thrown away. However, if we look beyond Charlotte’s text, hidden within the roughly cut paper pages are irretrievable stories we can only imagine, for until the 1870s paper was manufactured from textile waste. The threads from a clergyman’s surplice or a fine lady’s chemise may perhaps be mingled with the rags worn by a beggar in the paper sewn by Charlotte for her little book. 

Indeed, cloth made strange journeys through Victorian society, when a fine lady’s dress would be passed on to many owners via the second-hand clothing trade, until it eventually ended up as a servant’s duster, or the rags worn by a beggar. At the very end of this journey, rags were collected for recycling into paper. Textile recycling for the Victorians was a major industry, with many of the urban poor making a living from collecting rags and selling them to dealers who traded with the owners of paper mills, where the textile waste was manufactured into paper.

Charlotte’s scavenging for scraps of paper in the parsonage at Haworth seems far removed from the experiences of street children in the cities, when many orphans and abandoned children in the early nineteenth century made their living from collecting rags. However, the paper on which she wrote her text offers a link between the rural parson’s daughter and the abandoned street child in the city. The work of the rag-picker was vital to the work of the writer, for paper before 1870 could only be manufactured from rags.

We might wonder why the Brontë children didn’t just ask their father to buy paper for them. The reason is that paper from textile waste was both very expensive to manufacture and subject to the Paper Tax, whereby a levy was imposed on all paper made in Britain until 1860. Recycling, for the Victorians, was not done to save the planet (as it is today), but to save money, a thriftiness which was practised by all but the wealthy. The Victorian writer, Harriet Martineau, wrote in Household Words in 1854 that rags were ‘precious tatters’ and that everyone should keep a ‘rag bag’ in their home to give to the rag-and-bone collectors who visited every street.

It is likely that Charlotte was aware that the scraps of paper she salvaged for her little book came from rags. Perhaps she fantasised that the shirt of her hero, the Duke of Wellington, had played a part in its construction? Certainly, the stories that she and Branwell created as children turn upon fantastic transformations and improbable happenings, and the journey from rags to paper was often described as magical. One imaginative child’s story written in 1830, and now a valuable museum object, was inscribed upon an object brought about through the labour of many illiterate and exploited children.

As well as the stories that Charlotte wrote, there are the hidden stories contained within the paper of this little book. As well as vulnerable child ragpickers scavenging for cloth on the streets, further back than that were the children employed in cotton mills and woollen mills, who worked in dangerous conditions picking fluff from beneath the moving machinery. Further back still, there may have been the children of slave workers in the Southern States of America, helping adults to pick cotton. The labour of all these children is now silently embedded in the sheets of paper on which texts before the 1870s were written. After 1870, manufacturers in the United States discovered a way of manufacturing cheap paper from wood-pulp, and expensive ‘rag-paper’ declined.

Over the past year Professor Deborah Wynne has taken part in a project organised by the Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, Crafting Communities: A Series of Victorian Object Lessons and Scholarly Exchanges in COVID Times, involving online roundtables, crafting workshops, pedagogy workshops, an exhibition and series of podcasts. To find out more about the Crafting Communities project see:


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