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Talking Trash in Jasper

Jasper chose the General Electric Company to oversee a project designed to install a garbage disposer in every home in the town.

Trash became a dirty word in Jasper, Indiana in the 1950s.

A 1950 General Electric Company flyer proclaimed: “Garbage is Illegal in Jasper.” Cartoon drawings at the top of the sheet showed a housewife barring the garbage collector from her door and a policeman chasing the man out of town. In that year, Jasper, Indiana, became the first town in the country to participate in a public health experiment to install garbage disposals in every home.

By the mid-twentieth century, cities and towns began to realize that the cleanliness of their environment had a direct impact on public health. In 1945, Jasper was ordered by the state to stop dumping their raw sewage into the Patoka River. As the city council and mayor started to plan for ways to process their waste, a swine cholera epidemic in 1947 threatened many area farmers, and investigators found that the cause was the garbage being fed to the pigs.

Town mayor Herbert Thyen, while shopping one day with his wife, saw another potential solution to Jasper’s public health problems—in a Sears display window was an electric garbage disposer with the sign “Say Good-Bye to your Garbage Can.” With the city council and other town officials on board, Jasper chose the General Electric Company to oversee a project designed to install a garbage disposer in every home in the town.

At public meetings, citizens were urged to sign up and not be the only home on the block still plagued by rotting food in their waste cans. The city clerk’s office installed a working display model; the mayor personally visited the homes of some of the most entrenched opponents of the plan. By mid-February 1950, more than 800 of the 1200 homes in Jasper were signed up for the installation of a disposer, and General Electric employees fanned out across town to begin their work.

Officials from the U.S. Public Health Service and the Indiana State Board of Health came to Jasper to study the project. The new sewage processing system easily handled the increased input, and over the ensuing years many more citizens began to install disposer units in their kitchens. By the 1960s, many cities and towns (including Jasper) passed ordinances to require the installation of a garbage disposal in both new and renovated home construction.

Jasper never lost its garbage collectors, but the town was at the forefront of a small but important revolution in public health practices.

Source: Suellen Hoy, “Public Health and Sanitation in an Indiana Community: The Garbage Disposer and Jasper,” IMH June 1986

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.

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