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A totter is a rag-and-bone collector.

Not, you will note, the verb to move unsteadily (which comes from the Middle Dutch touteren, to swing), nor to do with tiny tots (which you might wrongly guess is an abbreviated form of totter, but which is actually an old English dialect word whose origin is unknown, though it’s the same one as a tot of spirits and so means something small), nor has it anything do with a person who tots up figures to come to a total (that’s an abbreviation from the Latin totum, total, which was once marked against a summed figure in account books).

Our totters’ name is from the old slang term tot for a bone, as in the nineteenth-century tot-hunter, a gatherer of bones, a word also used as a term of abuse; both may come from the German tot, dead.

Totters were once a familiar sight in the streets of every town and city in Britain, often announcing their presence with the ringing of a handbell and the cry of “rags, bones, bottles” that had been so often repeated it had been reduced to a hoarse, inarticulate shout. The original totters, of nineteenth-century Britain, really did collect rags and bones, among other items.

The former were sold to a rag merchant who passed them on to firms that reprocessed them into the cheap material called shoddy. The latter were the remnants of families’ meals, which were sent to firms that rendered them down for glue. Some even swept out the fireplaces and ovens of the more prosperous households, sifting out the ashes to sell to soap-makers and selling on the half-burnt coals and logs to those in need of cheap fuel. It was recycling at its most basic.

Later, the cry was often “any old iron”, commemorated in a famous music-hall song. By the early 1960s, when BBC Television produced Steptoe and Son about two rag-and-bone men in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, the totting trade in its old form was pretty much extinct: nobody wanted rags and bones any more. The men of that period and later were scrap merchants, picking up any unwanted item of junk that looked as though it might be worth a few coins.

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Page created 19 Aug 2006