Rag And Bone Man
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Basic Information

The rag and bone man is a profession from the middle ages which persisted into the 20th century. Essentially, it's the Medieval equivalent of the Garbage Man. This person would travel down the streets with a wheelbarrow or horse-drawn cart, into which people would throw various bits of rubbish, such as soiled rags and bones. They'd cart your junk off for your for a small fee. In the barter-heavy economy of the era, often the payment was in other goods or favors rather than cash - and in some cases the value of the waste itself may have been sufficient payment1 and rag-and-bone men were traditionally not above scooping up and removing anything that they could legitimately defend having mistaken for rubbish.

This job overlaps heavily with rag picker, a person who would actually sort through the rubbish for resalable items, much like a dumpster diver crossed with a peddler. A rag and bone man might gather up materials from a wealthy neighborhood, then resell the less disgusting items in a lower-rent part of town. As they say, a rich noble's trash is a peasant's treasure. Given the right local businesses, even bones could have some value - see bone char, bone ash, bone carver, glue, etc. Likewise, rags could be sold to paper-makers and weavers. And every so often you "get lucky" and someone throws out a thing you need or can sell for good money.

To alert the public of the opportunity to throw things out, the rag and bone man would either ring a bell, or shout out a call as they walked through neighborhoods. The call was usually "rag and bone", but over time would degrade to "raa-boh" or some other slurred and simplified version that was easier to repeat. Likewise "any old iron?"2.

Even in the modern day, this sort of occupation still exists, but it's perhaps less noticeable. Professional outfits, even in prosperous areas, offer to dispose of appliances and furniture for small fees - and salvage some of what they pick up. In places less financially solid, waste pickers pilfer the trash, exposing themselves to who-knows-what in the process. In between the two there is the recycling waste collection and the associated Mixed-Waste Recycling Facilities that sort and grade the waste.

Sources

Bibliography
4. Affordable Housing Institute - this article covers the history of rag-and-bone-men, rag-pickers, and night-soil-men, with historical and trivial details covering several centuries as well as their existence in the modern third world.
5. RPG: Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay actually has a Bone Picker character class.

Game and Story Use

  • It could be a family business. A parent and the oldest child go around with the cart, then they bring it to the home for the whole family to fill the rag picker role.
  • In settings with sympathetic magic, there's some danger of enemies buying off your Rag-and-Bone Man.
    • If a witch or other spellcaster needs an item you once owned in order to hex you, they might get it from the ragpicker who works your neighborhood.
    • Therefore it's a good idea to establish a rapport with your local rubbish hauler in such settings.
  • A clever and somewhat shady rag-and-bone man carries small trinkets to give away to children that bring them interesting things. In this way they encourage children to bring them things the rag-and-bone man might not otherwise get. Yes, the kids wouldn't be paying you to take stuff away, but they might bring you things their parents wouldn't part with otherwise.
  • In a fantasy setting with loads and loads of races, this might become a minority job - something the goblins do, and other "more civilized" folks look down their nose at them.
    • Terry Pratchett gave this slot in Ankh-Morpork to Gnolls - although not traditional gnolls.
  • The standard fantasy setting also has some strange critters with weird biochemistry. There may be a blob, ooze, etc. that the unsaleable trash eventually gets dumped to. The first sign that something's gone wrong at the dump might be that no rag men have passed through the PCs neighborhood in several days.
    • Can also occur in Sci-fi, although not as extravagantly - the Pakmara in Babylon 5 were an entire species of detritivores and rag-pickers with a taboo against eating anything that wasn't rotten.
  • The classic cRPG Planescape: Torment features extensive sections set around a city ward that consists mainly of an enormous waste dump and it's associated waste pickers.
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