MILWAUKEE — If you’ve ever talked to older relatives, perhaps those who grew up in the 1930s or 40s, you might have heard them mention the “rag man” or the “junk man.”
Today the image of the neighborhood rag man remains fixed in history, almost cliché.
But a new exhibit opening this month at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, a program of Milwaukee Jewish Federation, aims to breathe new life into the history of the individuals who plied their trade as our nation’s first recyclers. These folks grew their businesses from humble wagon-and-cart operations into some of the largest metal and scrap yard outfits in the country.
“Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling,” kicks off at 7 p.m. on Oct. 7 with a virtual opening preview that will be streamed on the museum’s website: JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.
The exhibit will open to in-person viewing on Oct. 8 and remain on display through Jan. 30, 2022.
Developed by the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, the exhibit covers the national and international story of scrappers, with the addition of local stories and information about the scrap business here in Wisconsin.
“We have such a rich scrap history here in Milwaukee and throughout the state of Wisconsin, which was largely populated by the Jewish community as it was really on a national scale for many years,” Jewish Museum Milwaukee Curator Molly Dubin said.
The exhibit is sponsored by just a few of the more familiar names in the local scrap and recycling industry, chiefly Alter Trading Corporation and Charter Manufacturing. The show’s other major sponsor is Wisconsin Humanities, which offers grants throughout the year to support locally initiated public humanities programs.
While most people’s connection to recycling consists of tossing empty cans or milk jugs into a recycling receptable and wheeling out to their curb twice a month, the recycling industry has deep roots in the American immigrant story and has played a large role in the Jewish immigrant experience.
For more than 200 years, discarded metals, rags, paper, and animal hides provided economic opportunities to the immigrants, and native-born Americans, who collected, stored, brokered, and sold them.
While the work was grueling, and scrappers were often stigmatized, many scrappers were entrepreneurs in the truest sense of the word, growing one-man endeavors into sprawling operations.
“So many Jewish immigrants didn’t have many other occupational opportunities, so peddling or ‘being the rag man,’ became one of the few occupations available to them,” Dubin said. “It’s just a really interesting history and we are excited to get into it … We literally have a spreadsheet with the names of probably 50 families (who were involved in the scrap industry here in Wisconsin). In the latter half of the 20th century, Jewish scrappers made up 70 percent to 90 percent of industry.”
Some names that might be familiar to locals are the Peltzes, Alter Trading Corp., which bought Miller Compressing, the Chudnows, and the Katz Family.
Special programs hosted throughout the exhibits run will look at both the history of scrapping in Wisconsin, and how it fits into the larger story of Jewish immigrants here and across the country.
Our role in recycling
In addition to focusing on the history of scrappers, the exhibit explores how the scrapping industry fits inside the larger story of recycling and ‘green’ movements.
“We’re excited to look at that whole process. Not only letting people know about what scrap or waste is, which is not really waste at all, because it is recycled and made into something new, but what role it plays in larger world (of recycling and waste management),” Dubin said.
The museum has planned a number of programs aimed at further exploring recycling and the role we as individuals play in the lifecycle of the products we purchase, use, reuse, donate, discard or recycle.
Environmental Justice: Exploring the Intersection of Waste, Race, and Health, which is slated to take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 3, will feature environmental activist and daughter of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, Tia Nelson. She will explore the history of environmental policy in Wisconsin and the challenges and opportunities regarding the creation of equitable environmental policy. On Nov. 7, a hands-on program will allow participants to make their own fireless Chanukah menorah using upcycled items.
“Everything we touch takes its place somewhere in that process, of recycling or upgrading or ending up in a landfill or ocean. We are really hoping to engage school groups because it has so many layers,” Dubin added.
For more information on the exhibit, visit JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.
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What: Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling
When: Oct. 8 – Jan. 30
Where: Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 N. Prospect Avenue.
More info: 414-390-5730. JewishMuseumMilwaukee.org.