Rag and bone man is a British phrase for a junk dealer. Historically the phrase referred to an individual who would travel the streets of a city with a horse drawn cart, and would collect old rags (for converting into fabric and paper), bone for making glue, scrap iron and other items, often trading them for other items of limited value. They would use a distinctive call to alert householders to their presence, sometimes also ringing a hand bell. The call was something similar to “rag-and-bone”, delivered in a sing-song fashion. Long usage tended to simplify the words, for instance down to “any raa-boh”, even to the point of incomprehensibility, although the locals could easily identify who was making the call.
The rag-and-bone men were an important component of society before automotive transport. Householders had limited ability to travel to collection points, so the various customers for rags, bones, and such materials relied on the rag-and-bone men to supply some of their materials. The increasingly widespread use of cars made these dealers unneeded in many areas.
Rag-and-bone men supported recycling or remanufacturing. Boarding a bus carrying rags or bones was not something the average householder wanted to do, so the rag-and-bone man could still provide a valued service.
The White Stripes have a song on the album Icky Thump called “Rag and Bone” on which Jack and Meg White sing about being rag and bone men and collecting junk. Check it out on iTunes.