Garbage can

In revenge, the Parisians attached his name to his invention

Eugène Poubelle (Caen, April 15, 1831 - Paris, July 16, 1907)

The trash can can only have been invented in a filthy environment. And that was Paris in the nineteenth century, the French city of lights, with no less than two million inhabitants. The household waste was simply dumped on the street. And no one picked it up.

The sewers were open, chamber pots were simply emptied into the street. It stank like the plague. No wonder that Paris also has a tradition in the trade of perfumes and scented waters.

Cholera regularly broke out and tens of thousands of people died. Sometimes a prefect came and set up a garbage collection service.

The Eugène Poubelle powerful guild of ragpickers – 30,000 men – saw its existence threatened by such a service and simply drove the garbage carts into the Seine. Everything remained as it was. Until Eugène-René Poubelle arrived in 1883.

Poubelle was born in Caen in 1831 and had completed a brilliant law degree. He taught law at the University of Toulouse, among others, and went to Paris in 1870 as a good patriot to fight against the Germans.

From then on he was prefect in a whole series of cities, but made a name especially in Marseille. At the end of 1883, when he was 52, he became prefect of the capital.

Three months later, he signed an ordinance that required the owner of each home to provide its residents with one or more communal bins to dispose of the household waste.

The famous 'poubelle', then still called 'boîte d'ordures ménagères', was a fact. Urban street sweepers had to pick up the barrels with dump carts, announcing their arrival "by the sound of a horn like the one used on railways," the decree said.

The Parisians didn't like it at all.

The chronicler of the Courrier de Paris had one of them say: "A tyrant like Louis XVI, who, by the way, has been sentenced to death, would never have dared to take such exasperating measures." To which the journalist added, "There's a lot of truth in that nonsense." But in 1885, cholera broke out again in the major French cities.

However, not in Paris. Poubelle was strong. The capital had never looked so neat. He quickly closed the sewers. By 1892, the last pipe was covered with paving stones.

And the rebellious rag pickers? They went to war against Poubelle to acquire the right to also look for their loot in the garbage cans. The Parisians feared that the army of poor bastards would use their hooksticks as weapons.

In May 1885, Poubelle relented, only on the condition that they keep their sorting operations out of town. The bums found such a place on an abandoned military site in Saint-Ouen in a northern corner of Paris.

Parisians passed it on their weekly walks to the open-air cafes in the nearby woods. The rag pickers offered their things for sale in the grass: that was the beginning of the famous Marché aux Puces.

Poubelle remained préfet de la Seine until he was 65 and was then ambassador to the Holy See for two more years. In 1898 he retired. He settled near Carcassonne, in the deep south of France, where his wife came from.

In his old age he became president of the farmers' union and an ardent défenseur des vins du Midi, an ardent defender of southern French wine. He is buried in Carcassonne.

When Poubelle died in 1907, he was praised in all magazines for his great qualities as a director, his tactical insight and his great oratorical talent. They wisely kept silent about the fact that the Parisians had already mocked, out of revenge, to attach his surname to the trash can.