At the turn of the century, Baltimore’s street sweepers were called White Wings because of the fancy white uniforms they wore, complete with coats and ties and matching pith helmets.
In 1985, they were called hokey men — don’t ask why; no one seems to remember how or when they got the name — and they wore whatever they wanted, usually under a bright yellow sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo of the city Bureau of Solid Waste.
These municipal employees are the folks who keep the city streets and alleys clean the hard way: gathering up the trash, bit by bit, a piece at a time.
Equipped with only a broom, a two-wheeled push cart, scooper and a handful of paper bags, each of these municipal employees spends eight hours a day, five days a week — unless it snows — picking up the soft drink cans, the gum wrappers, the liquor bottles and other refuse that somehow doesn’t land in the trash receptacles on the city street corners in Baltimore.
The job is a time-honored one dating back to Baltimore’s cobblestone days. But being a hokey was a far cry from being a White Wing circa 1900. The job of a street sweeper was hard to come by then and often required a degree of discipline akin to being in the military. As far as being a White Wing, one newspaper reported: “The boys had to toe the mark. They always had to show up in a clean uniform, which means they had to have two or three of them. They cost about $10 a piece, which was a week’s salary…and the men had to pay for them.
“They had to be clean shaven, and their shoes or boots had to be shined, or at least clean. They had to take pieces of chalk every day or so and whiten up those helmets until they were spotless. And they had to wear ties.
It was next to impossible to get on as a street cleaner without some fairly influential person speaking up for you”
“Hokey” arose sometime later and stuck. But the name and uniform changes notwithstanding, the job was still slow and steady work that has its advantages and disadvantages.
But in 1985, then-Mayor William Donald Schafer recommended eliminating the street cleaners to save money, only to change his mind.
In 1991, a change in city policy would mean that, in the neighborhoods during the election-year summer, there would still be fewer of the sanitation workers who typically pulled a wheeled trash bin and zero in with a broom and shovel on street trash that mechanical brooms often missed.
And to make up for the decline, public works officials increasingly relied on 5-foot-wide mechanical brooms, vacuum trucks and smaller sweepers the size of riding mowers.
Original reporting by The Sun in 1985 by Ron Davis and in 1991 by Martin C. Evans. Additional reporting by Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell.