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From the History Books: How the White Wings Cleaned up New York City

Have you ever heard of Colonel George Waring? He’s kind of a big deal in the cleaning and sanitation world. Before he fought in the Civil War, Colonel Waring was a city engineer in New York, where he gained recognition for his work reclaiming the swampland that would become New York’s Central Park. He had helped develop a first-of-its kind drainage system that allowed for the lakes and ponds within the parks, while leaving the remainder of the land dry. 

Following his success in New York, Waring left for Memphis, where he engineered a dual sewer and drainage system that separated storm runoff from septic waste. This ended decades of waterborne illnesses and diseases, including cholera, which had plagued the city for decades. 

Lacking any formalized sanitation and refuse system, New York City was drowning in garbage and filth in the late 1800s. Its current mayor, William Strong, called for Waring to return and assume the position of sanitation engineer. The job of tackling the city’s overwhelming sanitation issues would be no easy feat, and Waring approached the job as he would approach combat on the battlefield. 

Colonel George Waring transformed the image of the sanitation department in New York, dressing workers in white so they would be affiliated with hygiene and cleanliness.

His first initiative was to build an army of cleaners, equipped with ashcans and broomsticks as their weapons. But before he cleaned up the streets, he knew he needed to clean up the perception of the cleaners. 

Street cleaners of the day were known for accepting bribes and generally slacking off on the job. To transform this image, Waring assembled a force of more than two thousand sanitation “soldiers” who were clad completely in white, from the white caps on their heads down to the pants covering their legs. The motivation was to associate workers with hygiene (though other sources indicate that it was to also make workers obvious and easily identifiable should they feel compelled to skip off to the saloon during their shift).

According to an article in Collector’s Weekly, Waring’s military-like structure included “very clearly defined tasks, like someone was assigned to sweep from this corner to that corner 10 blocks down, and they were going to do it inside these eight hours, and this cart was going to follow and the driver of the cart had these set hours. If there were any problems, the officer immediately in charge of that crew would have to answer for them, and then the officer above had to answer for the larger regional work.” 

With his system in place, Waring and his army set to clean the poorest sections of the city (the more affluent areas had enlisted private cleaning services to clean up their streets). Initially, the sanitation workers were met with resistance, and local residents threw rocks and bricks at workers, fearful they intended to displace them. By the end of two weeks, the White Wings had won them over because their neighborhoods were clean. Eventually, the piles of trash throughout the city had been completely cleared.

After seven months of Waring’s sanitation leadership, The New York Times reported: “Clean streets at last… Marvels have been done.”

Workers clean up the streets of New York in the late 1800s.

Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up, noted, “These men became heroes because, for the first time in anyone’s memory, they actually cleaned the city. It was a very bright day in the history of the department…Rates of preventable disease went down. Mortality rates went down. It also had a ripple effect across all different areas of the city.”

Cleaning as a hygiene issue. A systematic approach to cleaning. Improving the perception of cleaners. Sound familiar?

  

A Look at Restrooms Around the World on World Toilet Day

Every year on Nov. 19th, World Toilet Day is celebrated with the goal of inspiring action and improving the global sanitation crisis. Sadly, more than 4.5 billion people throughout the world live without access to a household toilet, and this absence of a clean, sanitary environment not only fuels the spread of disease, it reinforces the cycle of poverty. In contrast, restroom sanitation is a key cultural focus in other parts of the world, reinforced through stories and song. In recognition of World Toilet Day, we’re looking at significance of restrooms in two very different parts of the world and how various these societies treat the people who are responsible for keeping them clean.

HAITI: In a place like Haiti where there’s no sewer system, more than 3 million residents (1 in 5 Haitians) use outhouses—so nearly every restroom is “public.” The people charged with cleaning out public toilets are known as bayakou. Their jobs are critical because Haiti is in the midst of a cholera epidemic. Deemed a “significant threat to global public health,” cholera results from poor hygiene, limited access to sanitation and inadequate water supply. While their jobs are critical to the health of people and children in Haiti, bayakou are often so scorned by the public that some never tell their spouses what they do for a living. Oftentimes, they clean at night because the smell is less intense and so they can hide in the darkness.

With no sewer systems in place, public restrooms in Haiti are cleaned by workers known as bayakou who often don’t tell their families about their work because of their shame.

JAPAN: On the other side of the world in Japan, visitors can expect the opposite experience when entering a public restroom. As writer Kaori Shoji suggests in the Japan Times, “you can expect a certain standard of cleanliness and tsukaiyasusa (accessibility) in most nooks and crannies.” This is because the restroom is a “prime feature of Japanese life” to the point that lore suggested daughters who cleaned the family toilet were destined to become beautiful, and would in turn bear beautiful daughters. In 2010, the song “Toire no Kamisama” or “The Toilet God” was a best seller, and just two years ago, the Japanese government launched the Japan Toilet Prize to “ensure that washrooms are always clean and safe.”

In U.S., we’re somewhere in the middle. While we’re fortunate to have access to public restrooms and sewage systems to reduce our exposure to diseases like cholera, it’s far from being treated as the most important room in the house when it comes to cleaning. In many facilities, the people who clean these areas are unappreciated for what they do. In the (OS1) System, we call these workers “restroom specialists.” But because their work goes unrecognized in most buildings, few restroom cleaners take pride in what they do. You’ll often hear custodians joke about being the “queen of the latrine” or “chief of the toilet brigade.”

Yet the role of the restroom specialist is no joke—it’s hard work and critical to business. In a recent Facility Cleaning Decisions survey, 56 percent of cleaning professionals say that restrooms are the most difficult areas in a facility to keep clean. Lack of supplies, trash, odor and spills are common issues plaguing cleaning workers.

From the customer perspective, a dirty restroom is a major turn-off. Seventy-five percent of U.S. adults say they wouldn’t return to a restaurant with dirty restrooms. An article featured earlier this month in Convenience Store Decisions found the same — “Clean Restrooms Are Good Business” it concluded.

So what is needed to help improve restroom cleanliness in the U.S.? A few things:

  1. Educating more people about the implications of a dirty restroom. A dirty restroom not only poses health risks, but also can also be a deterrent to customers.
  2. Appreciating, recognizing and supporting restroom specialists and custodians responsible for cleaning the restrooms.
  3. Moving beyond “the box” mentality. Restroom cleaning isn’t just a little box someone checks off after they have picked up a few pieces of stray paper towels. It needs to be a system that regularly monitors and maintains restroom surfaces in a way that ensures a consistent level of cleanliness—and health.

If you want to recognize World Toilet Day, you have a couple of options. To help reduce the number of people without access to a household toilet, you can donate to the World Toilet Organization, which is a non-profit organization aimed at providing a clean and safe toilet for everyone, everywhere at all times.

You can also take a minute to thank the person who cleans the public restrooms where you work or visit. By letting them know you appreciate what they do, you help improve their appreciation and respect for the work they perform.

Additional resources: “Inside the Hidden Dangers of Life without Toilets.”

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