Words by Robert Neff Photos from the collection of Robert Neff
Joseon Korea was generally perceived by foreign visitors as a land of extreme poverty. Even the Joseon government declared itself unable to establish trade agreements with the West because it had nothing to trade. But there were a lot of things that the average Korean wanted – even Western junk. That’s why some Koreans made trash treasure from their junk.
One early example took place during the American-Korean War of 1871. A Korean visiting an American warship was given an armful of empty bottles as a gift and, judging from his expression, went away very satisfied.
What became of these bottles? It has been speculated that they were used as windows. Glass was extremely rare and most Koreans were forced to make do with sheets of oiled paper to use as windows. Horace N. Allen, an early missionary/doctor and later American minister to Korea recalled that it wasn’t only in Korea that bottles were highly prized.
Apparently, a missionary couple traveling from China wanted to reward a steamship cabin boy who had been very faithful to them. The cabin boy’s delight at the possibility of a large tip quickly disappeared when he was presented with a basket of empty medicine bottles. The missionary had “lived long in the heart of China where bottles have a value and are prized as a servant’s perquisite; he seemed to forget that the market in San Francisco might not be so good.” Of course, Koreans and Chinese weren’t the only ones to use whatever was on hand when it came to making windows. Mary Scranton, an American missionary in Korea, described her first windows in 1886:
“There [was] no window glass anywhere to let in brightness and sunshine until one happy day Mr. [George C.] Foulk, our charge d’affaires, made me a present of three photograph plates. These I thankfully, if not proudly, inserted in the window near my desk and rejoiced at being able to see, at least with one eye at a time, the light of heaven again.”
But it wasn’t only bottles that were prized by Koreans. Kerosene tins were also extremely popular. Allen recalled: “This man’s load of tinware was manufactured from discarded kerosene tins. It amuses travelers to see the uses to which the Asiatics put these five-gallon tins in which our kerosene reaches them, – packed two each in neat wooden cases, which also find innumerable uses. Water carriers use the tins slung on a pole strapped to a frame on their backs. Houses are roofed with them, the tin of course being flattened out. With the ends removed and a number soldered together, chimneys are formed.
A Chinese cook, with his wonderful native ingenuity, will plaster the inside of one such tin with mud, leaving a vent connecting with a fire hole below, and on this improvised range, he will prepare a creditable course dinner off in the country wilds. All manner of cooking and household utensils are constructed from these tins, as well as lamps, candlesticks, toys, and ornaments. In fact, it would be a serious matter for the natives if they did not have the convenient kerosene tins, which consequently have, together with empty bottles, a regular price and usually form one of the perquisites of the servants in a foreign establishment.”
This Korean frugality still existed when I first arrived in Korea many years ago. I was impressed with my Korean hosts’ ability to make use of the things that the American military usually discarded. This included the shells from our weapons which were turned into beautiful brass implements and knickknacks sold near the army bases. As Korea continues to grow economically, this thriftiness is not as common as it once was. However, while a stronger economy has rendered such behavior unnecessary, it remains a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of a people struggling to thrive amid poverty.
Robert Neff has authored or co-authored several books including Korea Through Western Eyes and The Lives of Westerners in Joseon Korea. He currently writes a twice-weekly column for the Korea Times entitled “Did you know?” as well as a twice-monthly historical column for the Jeju Weekly.