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This might be tough considering the gesture is iterated so many ways, but it's worth a shot. What is the origin of the expression one man's trash is another man's treasure?

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4 Answers 4

It's another "pithicism" along the lines of one man's meat is another man's poison (first recorded 1576), or my favourite one man's ceiling is another man's floor (extant in 1927, so not in fact coined by Paul Simon).

The earliest trash/treasure I can easily find in print is The Saturday evening post: Vol 198 (1925), but William & Robert Chambers Journal of popular literature, science and arts (1879) has

...as one man's meat is another man's poison, so one man's rubbish is another man's treasure.

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I've had Paul Simon's song running through my head as well. +1 –  J.R. Mar 8 '12 at 0:19
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It's not related to OP's question, so I'll put this as a comment. One man's ceiling is another man's floor means the highest one person could aspire to may be just a starting point for a man of greater talent. But it always makes me think of the reverse One man's floor is another man's ceiling. Which I take to mean if you live in an apartment block, have consideration for the guy living on the floor below, and don't clomp around in the middle of the night when he's trying to get some sleep. –  FumbleFingers Mar 8 '12 at 0:21
    
@J.R.: Sorry 'bout that! ELU can help you with the name of what you've got (earworm), but no-one seems to have a cure. The only way I know to get rid of it is replace that tune with something even more "sticky"! –  FumbleFingers Mar 8 '12 at 13:46
    
No need to apologize. (1) You didn't stick Paul Simon in my head, the O.P. did; (2) I don't mind any of the music off the Rhymin' Simon album running through my brain. That said, when this question gave me the Neil Sedaka Calendar Girl earworm yesterday, well, I would accept an apology for that ;^) –  J.R. Mar 8 '12 at 15:40
    
The earliest "trash/treasure" link has something completely different: flattened against the window while milady. The link has probably been corrupted over time? –  Mari-Lou A Mar 11 at 3:03

The earliest example I found in Google Books is in Hector Urquhart's introduction to 1860's Popular Tales of the West Highlands:

Practical men may despise the tales, earnest men condemn them as lies, some even consider them wicked ; one refused to write any more for a whole estate ; my best friend says they are all ' blethers.' But one man's rubbish may be another's treasure, and what is the standard of value in such a pursuit as this?

The concept of something having contradictory qualities to different people has been around a long time. "One man's meat is another man's poison" was a 17th century proverb.

Though clearly not the origin of such concepts, here are some 17th-18th century versions. The 1703 The Athenian Oracle: Being an Entire Collection of all the Valuable Questions and Answers in the Old Athenian Mercuries refers to both One's man's pleasure is another's pain and a proverb One's man's meat is another's poison. This book is a bound publication of The Athenian Mercury which ran from 1690 to 1697.

It refers to them in an answer discussing these contrasts and our "perception of what's agreeable to our Natures", or disagreeable. The same could apply to trash/treasure.

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Q. What's Pleasure ? What's Pain ?

A. We Answer to both, that 'tis not easie to describe 'em, tho' so easie to know 'em -- and perhaps generally speaking, the more sensible and obvious any thing is, the more a Man may be to seek for a clear Philosophical Notion of it; Science being many removes from singular and sensible Objects, tho' grounded upon them. Besides, what's one man's pleasure is, another's pain, or according to the Proverb, Meat, Poison, and so of the other Senses -- And agen, Pleasure is certainly in some Cases, nothing but Privation of Pain (as Ease after a violent Fit of the of the Stone or Tooth.ach) and the very formality of Pain generally made something Privative or Negative, namely the absence of what's good or pleasant. For a general Description of'em both, which may reach all the Species, and include both body and Mind, we think this following may do -— Pleasure is a perception of what's agreeable to our Natures ---- and Pain, just the contrary, of what's disagreeable or inconvenient -— If any say, this is no more than Pleasur' pleasure, and Pain is pain, we would be oblig'd to them for a more clear and general notion of both those Affections than we have here given.

Just a few years later in 1706 is Several sermons upon the fifth of St. Matthew:

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That a thing which is a Sin to one is a Blessing to anther, no more than we count it a Solecism to say, that what is one Man's Meat is another Man's Poison.

And the next year, 1707's A General Treatise of Monies and Exchanges three times gives us a similar phrase to the junk:treasure comparison, in the context of the net wealth of the nation/kingdom/commonwealth remaining the same:

... one private Man's loss in that Case is another private Man's Profit, ...

for one Man's loss becones another Man's Gain;

Very true, Sir, one Man's loss is another Man's Profit;

Some other variations from the early 18th century:

  • William De Britaine's 1717 Humane Prudence: "One Man's Fault is another Man's Lesson"

  • Daniel Defoe's 1719 The life and surprising adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, mariner: "Thus, what is one man's safety is another man's destruction"

  • Thomas Brown, James Drake, Aristaenetus' 1720 The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown: "One Man's oversight is always another's Gane."

  • Nicholas Brady's 1730 Several Sermons: "Estates here often shift their Landlords, and what is one Man's to Day1 is another's To-morrow;"

  • William Ellis's 1737 The London and country brewer: "But according to the Proverb, One Man's Mistake, is another's Game."

  • Edward Young's 1741 Love of fame, the universal passion: "How one man's anguish is another's sport,"

  • A Lady's 1741 The history of Portia: "See what the World is ! one Man's Death is another Man's Joy"

  • Leonhard Culmann's 1741 Sententiæ pueriles: "One man's weal is another man's bane. One man's wealth is another man's plunder."

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I'm not sure where it originally came from. Sometimes it's written as "one man's junk is another man's treasure."

I just ran Google Ngrams on "another man's treasure," and found that the phrase seems to have taken off since the 1960s. (Maybe that's because we became a much more consumer-based society around that time frame, and we weren't carting so much junk to the curb before then?)

From a practical standpoint, there have been several times when we've wanted to get rid of some excess furniture, so we've hauled it down to the end of our driveway, and put a cardboard sign on it, reading, "FREE." Somehow, the items never make their way into the garbage truck; someone always seems to find a new home for them before then.

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In the 19th/20th century cotton industry, when the raw cotton first reached the factories it was mechanically cleaned by spiked, spinning beaters that forced the dirt out of the cotton. The shortest cotton fibres would also become separated and these short, dirty fibres were referred to as 'trash'. Obviously a cotton merchant isn't interested in the trash, but trash merchants were — they would use it to stuff things like cushions and mattresses. Perhaps this is the inspiration for the phrase 'one man's trash is another man's treasure'? Or maybe it's the inspiration for naming those fibres trash?

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