- Historic Sites
Urban Pollution-Many Long Years Ago
The old gray mare was not the ecological marvel, in American cities, that horse lovers like to believe
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
To many urban Americans in the 1970’s, fighting their way through the traffic’s din and gagging on air heavy with exhaust fumes, the,automobile is a major villain in the sad tale of atmospheric pollution. Yet they have forgotten, or rather never knew, that the predecessor of the auto was also a major polluter. The faithful, friendly horse was charged with creating the very problems today attributed to the automobile: air contaminants harmful to health, noxious odors, and noise. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in fact, writers in popular and scientific periodicals were decrying the pollution of the public streets and demanding “the banishment of the horse from American cities” in vigorous terms. The presence of 120,000 horses in New York City, wrote one 1908 authority for example, is “an economic burden, an affront to cleanliness, and a terrible tax upon human life.” The solution to the problem, agreed the critics, was the adoption of the “horseless carriage.”
A concern with clean streets and with the horse as a principal obstacle to them was nothing new. European cities had shown concern for the problem as early as the fourteenth century, as had American cities from their beginnings. But it required a more statistically minded age to measure the actual amount of manure produced by the horse. Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure a day, with the average being something like twenty-two pounds. Ina city like Milwaukee in 1907, for instance, with a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500, this meant 133 tons of manure a day, for a daily average of nearly three-quarters of a pound of manure for each resident. Or, as health officials in Rochester, New York, calculated in 1900, the fifteen thousand horses in that city produced enough manure in a year to make a pile 175 feet high covering an acre of ground and breeding sixteen billion flies, each one a potential spreader of germs.
Milwaukee and Rochester resembled other American cities in 1900 in having thousands of horses at work in their streets even after the automobile and electric streetcar had been introduced. Chicago had 83,330, Detroit 12,000, and Columbus 5,000. Overall, there were probably between three and three and a half million horses in American cities as the century opened, compared with about seventeen million living in more bucolic environments. (Today, at a time when horseback riding for pleasure is on the rise, the total number of horses in the United States is somewhat over seven million.) The ratio of horses to people was much higher in cities where traction lines were not yet completely electrified. In 1890, even after electrification had already begun, twenty-two thousand horses and mules were still required simply for pulling streetcars in New York City and in Brooklyn, with a total of ten thousand performing similarly in Philadelphia and Chicago. Ten years earlier, when New York and Brooklyn had counted no electric railways and 1,764,168 souls, they had a total equine population of 150,000 to 175,000.
To a great extent nineteenth-century urban life moved at the pace of horse-drawn transportation, and the evidence of the horse was everywhere—in the piles of manure that littered the streets attracting swarms of flies and creating stench, in the iron rings and hitching posts sunk into the pavements for fastening horses’ reins, and in the numerous livery stables that gave off a mingled smell of horse urine and manure, harness oil and hay. In 1880 New York and Brooklyn were served by 427 blacksmith shops, 249 carriage and wagon enterprises, 262 wheelwright shops, and 290 establishments dealing in saddles and harnesses. They were eminently necessary. On a typical day in 1885 an engineer, Francis V. Greene, making a study of urban traffic conditions, counted 7,811 horse-drawn vehicles, many with teams of two or more horses, passing the busy corner of Broadway and Pine Street.
While some of these conveyances were fine carriages drawn by spirited teams, the most common city horses were commercial or work animals. City streets were crowded with large team-pulled drays guided by husky and colorfully profane drivers and piled high with heavy freight. Among these, single-horse spring wagons twisted their way, making deliveries of ice, milk, and goods of every kind to residential areas. Their sides were often brightly decorated with advertisements, catching the eyes of passers-by and of the riders in the many omnibuses and hacks plying their routes. The horse remained essential in urban civilization, even after the development of the steam engine. As the Nation noted in 1872, though great improvements had been made in the development of such “agents of progress” as the railroad, the steamboat, and the telegraph, modern society’s dependence on the horse had “grown almost pari passu with our dependence on steam.” For it was the horse who fed the railroads and steamboats with passengers and freight, and who provided transportation within the cities.