To understand why, we might turn our attention to the great social and economic transformation that occurred after the discovery of gold (by Europeans) in Victoria in 1851. Archaeological excavations across Melbourne have uncovered masses of rubbish dating back to the Gold Rush era of the 1850s and 1860s.
Artefacts recovered from sites within Melbourne show that the city’s Gold Rush era occupants were incredibly wasteful. You might think that 150 years ago, Victorians would have been thrifty and mended their belongings or sold them on secondhand. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
Working-class people living in Melbourne’s CBD were throwing out so much stuff that the weekly rubbish collections couldn’t manage all their trash. Residents were stockpiling rubbish under floorboards, in hidden corners of the backyard or digging holes specifically for it.
Cesspits (old-fashioned long drop toilets) were closed across the city in the early 1870s, leaving large empty holes in the ground. Residents took the opportunity to fill them with their surplus rubbish. Many of these rubbish dumps remain under current city buildings and have been found and recorded in cultural heritage management excavations.
There were also larger rubbish dumps. At Viewbank homestead, on the outskirts of Melbourne, the tip was so big that archaeologists ran out of time to excavate it. Excavations at the Carlton Gardens have also uncovered a substantial amount of household rubbish dumped in the area by opportunistic city residents and night cart men.
Analysing the contents of all these rubbish dumps, it’s clear that people were discarding dinner sets and replacing them with more fashionable designs, buying and chucking out junk jewellery, and throwing out glass bottles in vast numbers in spite of industrial-scale local recycling operations. Sound familiar? They were even using “disposable” clay pipes, a Gold Rush era equivalent of our disposable coffee cups.
Another surprising find was a rubbish pit dug in the backyard of a draper shop and filled with piles of seemingly perfectly good clothes and shoes. Perhaps they had gone out of fashion? Excess, it seems, is in Melbourne’s bones.
You are what you own
The discovery of gold brought a massive increase in population, new wealth, unprecedented access to a global network of consumer goods and great opportunities for social mobility. No one could be sure of your social background in the chaos of this rapid change. The old working, middle and upper class hierarchy became less relevant and it was possible to move up the social ladder.
How, then, did people communicate their status? Through stuff. Cultural capital refers to how people play the “culture game”: their accent, their clothes, their possessions, their manners, their interests. The argument goes that status is determined by the expression of cultural values and particular behaviours rather than wealth alone.
Everyday choices of consumer goods became powerful in carving out a new position and a better life in the new city. Your home, your furniture, your tableware, your drinking glasses, your clothes, all became vital markers of your place in society. You were no longer constrained by your situation of birth.
Melbourne society was reinvented and a new, much larger and more diverse middle class emerged. One that had a new system for determining status based largely on what they bought.
Why do we buy and why can’t we stop?
As a globalised world grapples with the problem of fast fashion, fast consumerism and a throw away culture, with massive landfills and climate change, the question of why we consume is more important than ever.
You might want to consume and waste less. But old habits die hard and it’s important to understand why we consume before we are able to make significant changes to our wasteful habits.
Social mobility might not have the currency that it did in the gold rush era, but we are still purchasing to communicate something. What we buy announces our position in the world and our values. Our possessions place us within one group and distance us from another just as they did in the Gold Rush era.
As the slow movement, anti-consumerism and concerns over sustainability gather pace, a new brand of cultural capital may emerge. A cheap polyester jumper and a disposable coffee cup may become a sign of inappropriate excess. A minimal wardrobe of ethically produced clothes and a reusable coffee cup could become the ultimate marker of status.