- 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
Horse lovers became defensive about the future of that quadruped. Writing in the Chautauquan in 1895, Robert L. Seymour maintained that while the “cheap horse” might be doomed, the “costly, good-looking horse, the horse of history, the heroic horse in action, will probably last long.” Can you imagine, asked Seymour, “Napoleon crossing the Alps in a blinding snow storm on a bicycle or Alexander riding heroically at the head of his armies in a horseless carriage?” It is hard to blame Seymour for not having the prophetic gift to foresee tank commanders dashing ahead of their squadrons. A more fundamental error seems to have been made by a writer in Lippincott’s Magazine who insisted that since “Americans are a horse-loving nation … the wide-spread adoption of the motor-driven vehicle in this country is open to serious doubt.” Less romantic observers, however, embraced the possibility of the elimination of the horse with enthusiasm. When William Dean Howells’ fictional traveller from the nonexistent, Utopian land of Altruria visited Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893, he noted with pleasure that this metropolis of the future had “little of the filth resuiting in all other American cities from the use of the horse.”
During the opening years of the twentieth century the movement toward salvation by internal combustion continued to gather headway. Such popular journals as Harper’s Weekly , Lippincott’s Magazine , and the Forum , as well as more specialized periodicals like American City , Horseless Age , Motor , and Scientific American , were filled with articles extolling the automobile and the motor truck and disparaging the horse. There were several lines of attack. One of the most common was economic analysis, which argued, as did one writer in Munsey’s Magazine , that “the horse has become unprofitable. He is too costly to buy and too costly to keep.” Articles such as these computed the expense of the “horse cost of living” and compared it unfavorably to the expense of automobile upkeep. Other articles pointed out the advantages the motor truck had over the horse in hauling freight and in preventing traffic tie-ups by moving faster. One writer in American City noted that the good motor truck, which was immune to fatigue and to weather, did on the average of two and a half times as much work in the same time as the horse and with one-quarter the amount of street congestion. “It is all a question of dollars and cents, this gasoline or oats proposition. The automobile is no longer classed as a luxury. It is acknowledged to be one of the great time-savers in the world.”
But a second and equally—if not more—convincing argument for the superiority of the motor vehicle over the horse rested on the testimony that the automobile was a better bet from the perspective of public medicine. “The horse in the city is bound to be a menace to a condition of perfect health,” warned Dr. Arthur R. Reynolds, superintendent of the Chicago health department in 1901. Public health officials in various cities charged that windblown dust from ground-up manure damaged eyes and irritated respiratory organs, while the “noise and clatter” of city traffic aggravated nervous diseases. Since, noted Scientific American , the motor vehicle left no litter and was “always noiseless or nearly so” (a judgment hard to understand if one has heard a primitive auto engine), the exit of the horse would “benefit the public health to an almost incalculable degree.”
Also blamed on the horse were such familiar plagues as cholera and typhoid fever and intestinal diseases like dysentery and infant diarrhea. The reason why faithful dobbin was adjudged guilty was that such diseases were often transmitted by the housefly, and the favorite breeding place of the fly was the manure heap. In the late 1890’s insurance company actuaries discovered that employees in livery stables and those living near stables had a higher rate of infectious diseases, such as typhoid fever, than the general public. Sanitation specialists pursued the question, and the first decade of the twentieth century saw a large outpouring of material warning of the danger of the infection-carrying “queen of the dung-heap,” Musca domestica . The most obvious way to eradicate the “typhoid fly,” as the carrier was called by L. O. Howard, chief of the Bureau of Entomology of the Department of Agriculture and a leader of a campaign to stamp out flies, was to eliminate the horse.