The Garbage Disposer in 1951

Having mentioned the Kiplinger Magazine in my previous post, I happened across this article in the same issue, and found it a fascinating look back to the year of my birth, six years after the end of World War II. An appliance most of us take for granted these days, and even consider when looking at a home to purchase, was at that time still a novelty. The article gives a look back through the chronoscope at what some people were thinking about this new-fangled device. From Changing Times, The Kiplinger Magazine, October 1951.



Almost a million electric garbage disposers are now in use, and they are putting the garbage man out of a job

GARBAGE is a nasty word. When fed to hogs, it was an even nastier name: “swill” or “slops.” The delicate refer to it as “food wastes.” Whatever you call it, it’s a mess when the bottom drops from a soggy paper bag as you rush the stuff to the kitchen door.

You may never face that domestic crisis again. A revolution is going on that may make the garbage can as outmoded as the privy.

Its successor will he the electric garbage dis­poser, that mechanical pig that sits under the kitchen sink, gobbling up your garbage and washing it down with cold water.

If you have a disposer now, you know why housewives love it. It ends a lot of fuss and muss. It eliminates smells and drippings. It speeds getting meals and cleaning up afterward. It’s self-c1eaning, and stray dogs can’t knock it over. It puts flies, roaches, rats and mice on a starvation diet.

If you still stick to the garbage can routine, you’ll probably switch to a disposer sooner or later. This gadget is catching on fast all over the country. In the Los Angeles area alone, 10,000 units are installed monthly. Home build­ers feature them in new houses. A Midwestern city installed them all over town and fired its garbage collector. Last year sales were nearly double those of the year before.

The mechanical pig was almost 20 years old before it began to go to town. General Electric put its Disposall on the market in the early 30’s. But by the time World War II came, only about 100,000 disposers were in use – not many for a nation that buys over 3 million vacuum cleaners a year.

One reason for its slow start was its price­ – well over $100. Housewives were skeptical, too. Could it really chew up their garbage like the ads said? Would it last? Some city officials, fearing ground garbage would clog sewer mains and overburden treatment plants, outlawed disposers.

An answer to the durability question came from Edward J. Zimmer of Chicago’s Plumbing Testing Laboratory. He ran a disposer for a year, cramming in as much waste as a family of eight would have in 25 years. For seasoning he fed in big helpings of ashes, sand, granite, paving blocks, glass, nail, even a few iron fittings. After a year his disposer was still grind­ing away. It was a little slower, but it continued to grind well.

Time has furnished another answer. The earliest disposers have now been in use for 15 years. They still work well. Apparently they will last 20 years, as their makers claim.

The disposer is not a hazard to sewer systems. In Zimmer’s test, the disposer scoured out sewer lines instead of clogging them. Experiments at the University of Texas and e1sewhere proved a reasonably well-built sewer could carry off with ease whatever the disposer sent its way.

Meanwhile, health officers have jumped on the disposer bandwagon. They have long opposed feeding garbage to pigs, because that may lead to trichinosis in people who eat garbage-fed pork. Besides, garbage cans are feeding stations for disease-spreading flies. The disposer can end both threats to health.

Prize exhibit in the disposer showcase is the little Indiana city of Jasper (pop. 6,000). Garbage was a headache there. The city paid farmers to collect it. People complained about the service. It was hard to get bidders for the job. It cost the city $6,000 a year. If Jasper were to set up its own collection and disposal system, the bill would be $13,000.

The city’s engineer-mayor, Herbert Thyen, thought city-wide installation of disposers would make Jasper a garbage-free city and save money, too. The city council agreed. It got the state legislature to pass a law permitting Indiana cities to use home disposer garbage systems and to float a bond issue to pay for them.

But Jasper decided not to force a disposer on anyone who didn’t want one. So it passed up the bond issue idea in favor of asking each householder to buy a disposer for a bargain $75. Local banks made loans to those who needed time to pay. Soon 1,000 families-enough to set the plan going-signed up. The mayor estimates Jasper will save $13,000 a year on garbage collection, plus $6,000 it used to spend spraying garbage cans.

Some authorities question these savings.

Garbage is only 10% of a city’s refuse, they say. The other 90% must still he collected. Also, the extra flow from universal use of disposers would up the cost of sewage treatment by about 60 cents per person per year. Jasper’s new plant is bigger than what would have been needed for garbage-free sewage alone. Nevertheless, 156 cities are considering following Jasper’s lead.

In a few cities, you still can’t have a disposer because local ordinances forbid them. Some bans exist where sewage systems are inadequate, or so close to it that they can’t handle even a small additional load. Others are holdovers from the days when the effect of disposers on sewers was unknown.

But the price of the disposer plus the cost of installation is still the biggest hobble on the mechanical pig. The average unit sold last year cost $135. Some installations cost more than the disposer itself, up to $150. The average is $65. It adds up to an investment most families think about twice.

Even so, the industry is doing nicely. It’s not big time yet, but ifs on its way. In 1949, 175,000 disposers were installed. In 1950 the total was 300,000. At the first of this year 775,000 were in use, 87% of them having been installed in the last four years.

There’s more competition now, too. One manufacturer had almost all the prewar business. Today, 15 makers are in the field, including a healthy proportion of small outfits.

At 300,000 units a year, the disposer business is still in its infancy. When it hits a million a year, it will be grown up. How soon that day comes depends on how much steel can he spared from defense. Right now, shortages are in prospect. But when the million mark is reached, the garbage can will be on its way to the museum.


In the market for a garbage disposer? Follow these steps:

Consider your sewer system. If you use regular city-type sewers, you can probably use a disposer. They’ll work with septic tanks, too, if the tank is big enough. Minimum size is 500 gallons. Larger sizes arc recommended if you have more than two bedrooms. If you use a cesspool, better forget the whole thing.

Check local laws. Before you commit yourself, be sure your town permits disposers. There may be special installation requirements, too. Your dealer will know.

Measure your sink.. If the drain opening is 3 1/2 to 4 inches across, a disposer will fit. An adapter fits some disposers to larger openings. It is possible to enlarge small openings.

Get the Installation costs. It takes both au electrician and a plumber to do the job. It may run you 20% to 150% of the cost of the disposer itself. So find out what it will cost in your particular case.

Pick your disposer. There are just two types. In one, you open the top and put in garbage as it grinds. In the other, you fill the hopper, close the top, and then switch on the unit. With 15 makes on the market, there are price differences. So shop around.

Add up the costs. Price of the disposer plus installation is what you pay. Figure it will last 20 veers and cost about 5 cents a month to operate. Don’t forget you’ll still need trash collection for metal, glass, seafood shells, paper, rubber, large bones. But you may not need a pickup as often as before.

Treat It fairly. Follow directions on what to put in and what to keep out. Learn to tell, by the sound, when the grinding is done. Switch off promptly to save money.

In 1951, if your disposer cost $150 and you were socked $135.00 to install it, that would come to equivalent value today of about $2,600, definitely not chump change. But given some of the problems mentioned in the article, which were pretty endemic to society in those days, it’s easy to see why the idea caught on, especially as prices dropped.

Dave Berg Garbage Communists

From Mad’s Dave Berg Looks at the USA, illustrating another common theme in the 50s and 60s. Some of us are still looking for Bolsheviks under our beds at night…

Of course, as we were reliably told by Hefty, you don’t necessarily need a disposer to handle that problem:

Nowadays you can find a serviceable model at a home-improvement store for about $100.00 and install it yourself. There are more expensive models, of course, but the cheaper ones work well and usually last around 10 years.

But now, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way. An interesting article over at Remodelista covers pros and cons and gives tips on composting for those who are able to do it. As for us, we are fortunate enough to live in an area that permits backyard hens, which means we put almost nothing down the disposal and virtually nothing compostable into the landfill, and it comes back to us in the form of eggs. (The girls are taking a break at the moment, but if they don’t get with it our garbage will come back to us in the form of chicken enchiladas, which puts me in mind of this cartoon by Adrian Raeside:


Some older homes can’t handle a disposal well, and this should be taken into consideration. We bought a home that was built in 1950, before disposals were a household word. The downstairs kitchen was added later, and the contractor didn’t provide a big enough rise-over-run ratio from the new plumbing to the sewer main, so the long run of pipe would fill up with sludge which had to be rooted out from time to time. New construction should never have that problem.

In the end, the less we put down the pipes the better. it’s convenient and the technology allows for it, but there are increased costs in terms of sewage treatment, and if one can recycle, compost, or reduce waste in any way, then that’s the best way to go if we’re wanting to reduce our impact on island earth.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

4 responses to “The Garbage Disposer in 1951

  1. Another factor in living lightly on the Earth is water usage. I wonder how much more water people with disposals use. I don’t have a disposal, though my (scrounged) sink had one before it was installed. Like you, I compost a lot. And the dogs get extra food that isn’t good enough to eat, too. Of course, owning pet dogs isn’t the best way to have a small impact on the planet—especially considering that our dogs are big—but we make up for them in other ways, I think.

    • I don’t think people with disposals use that much extra water, or at least I don’t… but I guess it depends on how crazy you are with it. I’m not exactly stuffing everything down there that I probably could, so I use it for like a few seconds a day at the very most.

      • That’s a very good point. Different people have different uses. We don’t have a dispos-all now, because our garbage disposers are in the backyard and they give us eggs in exchange.

  2. Pingback: “I’m in your dispos-all.” | Playing in the World Game

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