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Urban Pollution-Many Long Years Ago

May 2024
14min read

The old gray mare was not the ecological marvel, in American cities, that horse lovers like to believe

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.

Yet this hard-working animal, so vital to the functioning of urban society, posed problems that were recognized by even the earliest American city dwellers. The question of clean streets was most obvious. In eighteenth-century Boston and New York, money was allocated by the city fathers for street cleaning, and householders were required to sweep the road in front of their doorways. Cities made sporadic attempts during the mid-nineteenth century to mechanize the tasks of sanitation. In 1855 New York introduced street-sweeping machines and self-loading carts, and in 1865 urban entrepreneurs formed the New York Sanitary and Chemical Compost Manufacturing Company for the purpose of “cleansing cities, towns, and villages in the United States” with several varieties of mechanical devices adapted to the task. By 1880 almost all cities over thirty thousand in population employed street-cleaners.

American cities made their most sustained efforts to clean the streets under the stimulus of the fear induced by epidemics of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, or typhoid. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical authorities believed that such diseases were caused by “a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth,” among which horse manure was a chief offender. In 1752 Boston selectmen allocated extra funds to clean the streets because of the fear that street dirt might contain smallpox infection, and in 1795, during the yellow-fever season, town officials invited neighboring farmers to collect the manure from the streets free of charge. The city fathers of New York, faced by the threat of cholera in 1832, made special efforts to cleanse the cobblestones, thereby divesting the city “of that foul aliment on which the pestilence delights to feed.”

But unless jolted by rampant disease, city authorities and citizens tolerated a great deal of “that foul aliment” in their streets. One reason, perhaps, was a reluctance to spend money on such an unsatisfying, if crucial, municipal effort. Some cities tried to cover the cost of street cleaning by selling the manure for fertilizer. In 1803 the New York superintendent of scavengers expended about twenty-six thousand dollars for street cleaning and realized over twenty-nine thousand dollars from the sale of the manure collected. Despite this instance of profitable purifying, however, paid scavenging did not generally achieve great results. In those cases where private contractors were responsible for cleaning the streets, citizens often complained that they neglected other forms of rubbish and only collected the salable manure. Nor did a shift to public sanitation service improve things. Officials of post-Civil War years often reported that street dirt was becoming too mixed with other forms of litter to be sold as fertilizer. Moreover, whatever the salable quality of the street refuse, urban sanitation departments during the nineteenth century were notoriously inefficient. Vexed by graft and corruption, they were staffed by “old and indigent men,” “prisoners who don’t like to work,” and “persons on relief.”

Street cleaning, therefore, remained largely inadequate, and one is thus not surprised to discover that newspapers, diaries, and governmental reports abound with complaints about the problems created in the city by horse manure left in the public thoroughfares. Manure collected into unattended piles by the street cleaners bred huge numbers of flies and created “pestilential vapours.” Offal was sometimes carried from wealthy residential neighborhoods and dumped in poor neighborhoods, where it was left to rot. Streets turned into virtual cesspools when it rained, and long-skirted ladies suffered the indignity of trailing their hems in liquefied manure. In London, ladies and gentlemen were aided in their navigation through a sea of horse droppings by “crossing-sweepers,” but no such group appeared in more democratic American cities. Yet dry weather was no great improvement, for then there were complaints of the “pulverized horse dung” that blew into people’s faces and the windows of their homes, and over the outdoor displays of merchants’ wares. The coming of paved streets accelerated this problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the sun-dried manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the amount of dust.


And then there was noise. In many American cities, early paving consisted largely of cobblestones, on which the clopping and clanking of horses’ iron shoes and the iron-tired wheels of carts and wagons created an immense din. Benjamin Franklin complained in the late eighteenth century of the “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, waggons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise” that assailed the ears of Philadelphians. Similar comments about urban noise were made by travellers in other cities. Attempts were made quite early to quiet the clamor. In 1747, in Boston, the town council banned traffic from King Street so that the noise would not distract the deliberations of the General Court. In 1785 New York City passed an ordinance forbidding teams and wagons with iron-shod wheels from the streets. In London good medical management required the putting of straw on the pavement outside sick people’s houses to muffle the sounds of traffic, a practice undoubtedly followed in America. Yet the problem grew with the growing nation. As late as the 1890’s a writer in Scientific American noted that the sounds of traffic on busy New York streets made conversation nearly impossible, while the author William Dean Howells complained that “the sharp clatter of the horses’ iron shoes” on the pavement tormented his ear.

If the horse, by his biological necessities, created problems for the city, the city, in turn, was a harsh environment for the animals whose possession had once been the mark and privilege of nobility. The horse belonged to the open spaces and the battlefield. In an urban setting he was, with rare exception, a drudge. City horses were notoriously overworked. The average streetcar nag had a life expectancy of barely two years, and it was a common sight to see drivers and teamsters savagely lashing their overburdened animals. The mistreatment of city horses was a key factor in moving Henry Bergh to found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866. When released from harness, the working steed usually was led to a crowded and unsanitary stable without adequate light or air. Only the pleasure horses kept by the city’s “swells” to drive handsome rigs in the park had access to the green fields enjoyed by their country cousins.

Many overworked, mistreated urban horses simply died in the city streets. Moreover, since asphalt-paved or cobbled streets were slipperier than dirt roads, horses often stumbled and fell. An unfortunate beast who broke a leg in this way was destroyed where it lay. (In order to minimize the risk of stumbles, some veterinarians recommended that city draft horses be shod with rubber-padded horseshoes, but few owners followed this advice.) A description of Broadway appearing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1866 spoke of the street as being clogged with “dead horses and vehicular entanglements.” The equine carcasses added fearsomely to the smells and flies already rising in clouds from stables and manure piles. In 1880 New York City removed fifteen thousand dead horses from its streets, and as late as 1912 Chicago carted away nearly ten thousand horse carcasses. A contemporary book on the collection of municipal refuse advised that, since the average weight of a dead horse was thirteen hundred pounds, “trucks for the removal of dead horses should be hung low, to avoid an excessive lift.” The complaint of one horse lover that “in the city the working horse is treated worse than a steam-engine or sewing machine,” was well justified.


By the 1880’s and 90’s the immense population growth of American cities, the need for improved urban transportation to keep up with the geographic spread of communities, and a growing awareness of the need for better sanitation in the interest of public health, all emphasized the drawbacks of the horse as the chief form of urban locomotion and spurred a search for alternatives. The first major breakthrough came with the development of the cable car and the electric trolley car in the late 1880’s. Traction companies were quick to substitute mechanical power for animal power on their streetcar lines. Writing in Popular Science Monthly in 1892, United States Commissioner of Labor Carroll D. Wright maintained that electric power was not only cheaper than horsepower, but also far more beneficial to the city from the perspective of health and safety. “The presence of so many horses constantly moving through the streets,” wrote Wright somewhat ponderously, “is a very serious matter. The vitiation of the air by the presence of so many animals is alone a sufficient reason for their removal, while the clogged condition of the streets impedes business, and involves the safety of life and limb.” While electric-powered transportation began to make inroads on the horse’s domain, improvements in the gasoline engine made it clear that the automobile would soon be a viable alternative. Even the bicycle craze of the nineties reminded many that horseless commuting was possible over reasonable distances.

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.

Writing in Appleton’s Magazine in 1908, Harold Bolce entitled his article “The Horse Vs. Health.” In a thoroughgoing assault he blamed most of the sanitary and economic problems of the modern city on the horse and essayed to calculate the savings if all horses were replaced by automobiles and motor trucks. His figures were arrived at by an intriguing formula. According to Bolce, twenty thousand New Yorkers died each year from “maladies that fly in the dust” created mainly by horse manure. He estimated the monetary value to the community of these people’s lives, plus the cost of maintaining hospitals to treat them, and laid the entire bill on the withers of the inoffensive horse. To this sum he added the cost of street cleaning and rubbish disposal. He also attributed a higher urban cost of living to the failure to use speedy motor trucks, instead of horses, in transporting goods. Finally he computed and added the costs of traffic congestion and reached a total of approximately one hundred million dollars as the price that New York City paid for not banning the horse from its streets. What fed Bolce’s indignation was not so much hate of horses, perhaps, as dedication to progress. The horse, he maintained, represented one of the last stands of brute animal strength over applied science and, as such, had to go—Americans could no longer afford “the absurdities of a horse-infected city.”

While no city ever took such drastic action as banning horses completely from its boundaries, many cities did eventually forbid them the use of certain streets and highways. But in the long run the horse’s opponents triumphed without recourse to legislation. The number of horses in cities dropped sharply as the automobile and the motor truck rapidly gained popularity, although the number of horses in the nation stayed high until the 1920’s (there were 20,091,000 horses reported in the 1920 census). As this happened, the benefits promised by motor-vehicle enthusiasts seemed to be initially realized. Streets were cleaner, particle pollution resulting from ground-up manure and the diseases thereby produced were diminished, the number of flies was greatly reduced, goods were transported more cheaply and efficiently, traffic travelled at a faster rate, and the movement of people from crowded cities to suburbs was accelerated by the automobile. Events appeared to justify the spokesmen for the advantages of the motor vehicle over the horse.


And yet, as current difficulties resulting from the massive use of the automobile attest, the motor vehicle’s proponents were extremely shortsighted in their optimistic faith that their innovation would not only eradicate the urban health problems created by the horse but would also avoid the formation of new ones. As the number of automobiles proliferated and such cities as New York and Los Angeles experienced smog conditions that were a serious hazard to public comfort and health, it became apparent that the automobile, too, was a major obstacle to humane metropolitan existence.

Are the problems of noise and air pollution created by thousands of cars and trucks “worse” than those for which the horse was responsible? It is impossible to answer flatly. Altered environmental and demographic conditions in the city today, when judged beside those of a century or so ago, make specific comparisons between the horse and the automobile as polluters difficult at best. Aside from the disagreeable aesthetic effect created by horse manure, its chief impact upon public health seemed to come from wind-blown manure particles that irritated respiratory organs; from the reservoir furnished by the manure for disease spores, such as those of tetanus; and, most critically, from the fact that horse dung provided a breeding ground for the fly, proven by medical science to be the carrier of thirty different diseases, many of them acute. The pollution created by the automobile, on the other hand, is also aesthetically displeasing; and while it has not yet been firmly linked to any specific disease, it has primarily a chronic effect on health. The pollutants released by the internal-combustion engine irritate people’s eyes and lungs, weakening their resistance to disease and worsening already present health problems. The immense number of automobiles in cities today has produced environmental difficulties that, unless soon dealt with, will generate problems that will dwarf those produced by horses in the cities of the past.

But the narrowness of vision of the early automobile advocates and their conviction that their machines would make urban life more tolerable, can be understood not as their failing alone. Most Americans, when informed of some technological advance that promises to alter their lives for the better without social cost, rush to embrace it. Second thoughts come later. Witness the apprehensions voiced presently over nuclear power plants after an initial flush of enthusiasm based on the hope that this cleaner and more efficient method of generating electricity would free us from dependence on dirty fossil fuels. We are only now learning to weigh the biological and other costs of new inventions with some caution. The career of the automobile has been one element in our education. Horses may be gone from city streets, but the unforeseen problems created by their successors still beset us.

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