OK, gather the young kids around. The Town Crier is going to share another story from the (fairly) recent past that they aren’t going to believe.
OK, here goes.
Let’s say it’s late 1950s, early 1960s. You go to a drive-in burger joint. This is before drive-thru windows, so you would walk up to a window and order or a car-hop would come and take your order.
Let’s say you were at the Brazier Burger or maybe the A&W drive-in, or perhaps it’s at the Chow Time or Chat and Chew.
Everyone in the car (that would be mom, dad and approximately 2.3 kids) gets something to eat. The white paper bags with the wrapped burgers, little bags of fries, napkins, drinks and straws are brought to the car and off you go. You’re driving somewhere while you’re enjoying your in-car picnic. A little bit of ketchup in the little packs gets here and there, but overall things go well and miles down the road you’re finished eating.
Everyone gathers up their paper and trash and stuffs it into the bags that the food came in. Once the bags are all full with the refuse everyone hands the bags to mom. Mom rolls down the window and throws the whole mess out the window as you speed along. Yep, that was the way it was done — believe it or not as Mr. Ripley would say.
Not much to throw away
Litter, the stray trash that gets cast away outside, wasn’t always such a problem, but then in the age of the car and long trips it quickly became a major issue. If you think about it, in the very olden days there wasn’t hardly anything disposable. Everything was made to last.
Think about those wagon trains heading west or the cowboys gathered around the campfire out on the plains. The cups and plates were all tin and about the only thing they would toss was if there was a sip of coffee left in the bottom of the cup. Everything else got cleaned up and carried on. If you’ve seen Western films with the Conestoga wagons, AKA prairie schooners, traveling along, all they left behind were tracks in the dust. In years past even a scrap of cloth would come in handy as a patch, bandage or cleaning rag.
By the 1920s there were a few things around that were considered tossable. I’m thinking mainly of newspapers but also things like leftover, empty champagne bottles from Gatsby parties that flappers would toss from the cars.
In the 1920s downtown Dalton finally got trash cans along the streets for the first time. And they were provided by one of the service organizations, not the city fathers. Before that, there just wasn’t that much to get rid of except the droppings from the horses and mules, and at the end of the day, that’s basically fertilizer. Smelly fertilizer, but fertilizer nonetheless.
And in the days before everywhere got electricity, the old newspapers were used for starting fires in the wood and coal burning stoves and heaters. They might also find themselves used for insulation on a shack if someone couldn’t afford tarpaper.
During the Depression everyone was back to using things up and keeping things for reuse. The next decade saw the war years and anything recyclable was used for the war effort. Everything from scrap metal to grease to old tires was collected to help with the armaments. With things so scarce there just wasn’t that much to throw away.
But in the 1950s, with the economy booming and mass production humming along, throwaway became a thing. Lots of paper products, cheap and plentiful, and lots of tin cans and soda bottles, and plenty of items that were being upgraded around the house were all candidates for the junk pile or, in many cases, the roadside.
As kids, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, my cousin and I would go out and scour the ditches for glass Coke bottles. You could still get a little deposit back on them. When we got enough to get enough to maybe buy a comic strip we’d get someone to drive us to Lucille’s Grocery and trade them in. There were always several of the wooden crates the Coke bottles came in and empties were collected out front. We’d get our coins, make our purchase and stack the empties in the crate.
What was also fun about “ditch prospecting” Coke bottles was in those days the city the bottles were from were imprinted on the bottom of the bottle. Mostly the bottles were from around here, maybe as far away as Atlanta or Chattanooga, but you would occasionally get one from somewhere exotic, you know, like Birmingham or Nashville, far-away places we could only dream about going one day. But what we didn’t pick up out of the ditch was the ongoing trash that was cast out. That stuff sat there until it blew away, washed away or disintegrated.
In the ’60s and ’70s people became more aware of pollution, whether it was from industrial waste pumped untreated into rivers and lakes, plumes of smoke rising in the sky or the litter along the roadside. The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970, and it was to focus on the natural health of the planet. Litter was becoming a target as one of the things that needed cleaning up. Not only was it not that healthy ... it was ugly.
First, there were some public service announcements to help change people’s minds and behavior about tossing things out of the car windows and then came anti-litter laws. There were TV commercials that became well known.
One of the famous commercials featured a man portraying a Native American named Iron Eyes Cody. In the commercial he paddles a canoe down a pristine river in the wilderness. Gradually he floats past some newspapers floating in the river. Then he paddles along a riverside filled with factories spewing pollution into the environment. He banks his canoe on the shore and steps out amongst all kinds of trash and litter along the water line. He walks up to the freeway and watches the traffic jam speed by. Then, as one car passes, the passenger tosses a fast food bag out the window. It lands at Cody’s feet and busts open with all the leftover garbage from the meal spreading out. The announcer says “People start pollution ... only people can stop pollution.” Then, in one of the most iconic moments in advertising, Iron Eyes turns and looks at the camera as a single tear streams down his face. This was powerful stuff.
There was another TV commercial campaign that I enjoyed but not for all the right reasons. Tennessee had their own anti-litter TV campaign and since we get the Chattanooga stations here I got to see it when it aired. They came up with a character named “Tennessee Trash." He was a sloppy, dirty-looking character that clearly didn’t care if he littered or not, the thoughtless good-for-nothing. The commercial came out around 1976.
Sure the message was clear about not littering, but what I really liked about the commercial and what kept me watching it whenever it came on was the great country song that played. The song was classic old school country and was written by Ed Bruce. Irving Kane played “Trash” in the original version.
As the great song plays, “Tennessee Trash" drives down the road in a beat-up convertible throwing trash out as he speeds along, running over glass bottles and smashing soda cans flat, and at one point he even kicks an old mattress out of the car into the ditch. The other thing besides the song that got me was in a couple of shots the camera pulls back and the highway is full of trash for about a quarter of a mile. I thought it was really something that they made such a mess for this commercial. I thought about the crew members that had to clean up all that debris at the end of the shoot. The commercial was so well received and remembered that they remade it in the 1990s and this time they got the songwriter to play the part of “Tennessee Trash." Even the license plates on the cars read “Trash."
Keeping it clean nowadays
We’ve come a long way since the days of “anything goes out the window” litter. We have mowers in the county that keep the grassy roadsides mowed and trim looking. Back in the old days, those mowers would have just chopped up the trash and made for a literal snowstorm of litter.
There are still some things in the ditches but they really stand out now if you’re driving along and see a bag of trash in the ditch. There is the occasional newspaper insert or sometimes when they put out the new phonebooks I will spot a few of those around. I’m not sure that some of the trash like that isn’t from the dogs dragging things around.
There are trash cans everywhere now, we recycle and have garbage pickup regularly and we’ve learned to keep things a lot cleaner. But I do have to admit, back in the day littering sure was handy ...
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.