Junk became one of Bangor’s most important products a century ago thanks to the Great War in Europe and the city’s needy people, including its many immigrants, who scrambled to find ways to make money. A steady flow of newspaper stories about the profitability of junk, the licensing of junk dealers and the criminal behavior associated with the trade appeared in the newspapers much of the year.
As one reporter put it in the Bangor Daily News on May 17, 1916: “Bangor is being well surfeited with junk. It has been junk, junk, junk since the first Monday in May when the licensing board met to grant … licenses for junk dealers … and for several days cases having to do with junk and junk dealers have figured in the municipal court.”
A story in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Aug. 3 explained how junk men were profiting from the war in Europe. Even children were cashing in. “Owing to the scarcity of many articles that are needed in the manufacture of munitions, etc., householders of American are obtaining good prices for waste materials that formerly were of little or no value as junk.”
Every household had an accumulation of waste materials that could be turned into cash. “The children are the ones to take advantage of this and every day junk men in Bangor are veritably besieged by swarms of them with a conglomerate array of non-descript articles they are anxious to dispose of.” Housewives were emptying attics and barns, where the useless residue of living had been hoarded for years — sometimes generations.
Trading items, according to a Bangor junk man, included “brass screws, pieces of brass pipe, nickel trimming from stoves, old magazines, newspapers in almost any quantity, vast accumulations of rags that from all appearances had been in the houses for ages, old rubbers, and in fact almost anything in the line of wearing apparel and articles that once were of service, are now brought in with the request that they be given a big price for them.”
Prices had declined rapidly since the beginning of the year, but there still was plenty of money to be made from scrap brass, copper, tin, tinfoil, rubber and anything made of paper, according to the nameless junk man.
The growing number of people applying for licenses to set up junk businesses was indicative of the profits to be made.
Early in May, dozens of applicants wishing to set up small businesses, from street vendors selling popcorn to pool room entrepreneurs, gathered at city hall to present their cases to the board of aldermen.
On May 2 and 3, the Bangor Daily News recorded the names of applicants seeking licenses to sell junk and related goods from yards or wagons. They included Abram Sigel, junk by team only at 68 Boyd St.; Edward Albert, junk shop near Brackett’s stable at French and York streets; H.A. Hathorn, buy paper and rags; David Snider, second-hand articles, 207 Broad St.; Louis Rudman, second-hand articles, Pickering Square; Jacob Cohen, second-hand articles and pawn shop, 155 Broad St.; Mrs. Tanis, junk, 179 Hancock St.; H. Striar, junk, 191 Hancock St.; Oscar Roluck, junk and second-hand articles, 29 Carr St.; Harry Cohen, pawn broker and second-hand articles, 131 Broad St.; Israel Asperowich, junk peddler; and David Striar, junk, 424, Hancock St.
This was only the tip of the iceberg. Eight more applicants for various sorts of junk and second-hand shops or peddlers licenses appeared May 4. Many more submitted their applications as the months went by.
MONEY IN JUNK a headline declared in the Bangor Daily Commercial as late as Nov. 23 as the parade continued. “Must Be Judging from the Number Applicants for Licenses,” the witty subhead added. Benjamin Martin, F.L. Files, Israel Rich and W. Stuhl were all applying for licenses to buy and sell junk from house to house and to sell it to “local wholesalers.” Robert Cohen wanted a license to deal in second-hand goods and to keep a pawn shop.
Gradually, the number of junk dealers must have surpassed the amount of available junk creating competition that engendered criminal activity. A series of stories in the Bangor Daily News in mid-May summed up the trouble.
DUBIOUS DAYS FOR JUNK DEALERS, a headline said in the Bangor Daily News on May 15. Youngsters — including small armies of “boy thieves” — were stealing from junk dealers as well as selling them stolen goods.
“These are perilous days in the junk business,” the reporter wrote. No sooner had licenses to sell junk been granted by the licensing board than trouble began brewing. “It has now reached such a stage that no junk dealers appear to feel safe to leave a little trifle like a carload of junk weighing nobody knows how many tons out over night on a railroad sidetrack.”
A gang of boys had been rounded up and “seven or eight have been locked up” awaiting a court hearing. Their practices had been “dark and devious not to say bold and unscrupulous.” At least their operations bore “the stamp of ingenuity.”
The boys were stealing goods from one junk dealer and selling to others. A dealer named Sam Wise had discovered his goods being unloaded into a nearby shed for sale later to another dealer. Wise was so angry that he addressed the judge in “a foreign tongue.”
Another dealer, Abram Brown, reported that a carload of rags sitting on a railroad siding on Hancock Street had disappeared in a night. Similar stories were coming from other dealers.
The story had changed a bit the next day. The headline said CROOKED JUNKMEN AND BOY THIEVES: Vicious System Encouraging Juvenile Crime Disclosed by Recent Arrests.
The city hall corridor and the courtroom were packed with junk dealers and their friends and employees. Two sets of boys had been arrested and charged with stealing junk and selling it to other junkmen. Some junk dealers were suspected of encouraging the boys by buying property they knew was stolen. Judge Blanchard delivered a lecture to the dealers threatening to have their licenses canceled if this did not stop.
A story on May 17 said two boys had been sent to the state school for boys, while Israel Epstein, a junk dealer, was fined $50 and costs for receiving stolen goods. These goods included 150 pounds of rubbers. The complainant was Hyman Striar, another junk dealer.
Meanwhile, police charged Epstein with also receiving stolen goods consisting of 875 pounds of rags belonging to Abram and Leo Brown, and he was fined an additional $50.
Later some ”boy robbers,” James Maroon, Paul and Peter Corey and Max Hoffman, were arraigned for the larceny of 25 pounds of brass, the property of Striar.
The other gang of boys consisting of Raymond Cayting, Adolphus Lozier and Charles Arsenault were charged with stealing the rags from Abram Brown that were sold to Epstein.
Another junk-related fracas occurred in November, when the residents of St. John’s Court hired a lawyer to force out an unlicensed junk dealer named Israel Rich, who was causing “a howling nuisance.” Some aldermen were so angry they advocated taking him to court and making an example out of him instead of granting him a license and assigning him a place to use it.
A witty headline writer wrote that Rich, “Has Dared to Do Business Without a License. Horrible Fate in Store for Him — Dim Suspicion of Other Cases — Afternoon of Oratory.”
Rich finally was given a license to buy and sell junk, if he agreed to remove his supply from a barn on St. John Court, the Bangor Daily News reported on Dec. 2.
Of course, there were many other cases of street-corner businessmen ignoring the rules laid down by the establishment, including one infamous lunch cart operation that had been defying a city order to move off a busy corner on Exchange Street for months. That was how newcomers to Bangor struggled to make a living a century ago by ignoring as many rules as possible.
That was after all how things were done in the Queen City of the East, where city fathers had managed to ignore the state’s prohibition law for most of the last 60 years.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org