Why did travellers stop using horses?

Yes, it’s Melbourne Cup time, “the richest two mile handicap in the world” since 1861. So, it’s obligatory to find a horsey topic.

In SuperFreakonomics, their follow-up to the highly successful Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner relate the Parable of Horseshit, or how the car and public transport saved New York from asphyxiating under tonnes of dung.

The authors’ purpose was to show that trends don’t go on forever and that technological innovation can have a key role in addressing severe problems (although this got them into a huge controversy when they applied this way of thinking to climate change!), but I want to stick to the equine angle.

Eric Morris provides a knowledgeable and informed account of the enormous problems posed by animals in urban areas, most especially horses, in From horse power to horsepower. It’s only nine pages, however there’s a much briefer account by Elizabeth Kolbert, published in the New Yorker. It’s from her review of SuperFreakonomics. Even if you already know the outline of the story, she brings some interesting detail:

In the eighteen-sixties, the quickest, or at least the most popular, way to get around New York was in a horse-drawn streetcar. The horsecars, which operated on iron rails, offered a smoother ride than the horse-drawn omnibuses they replaced. (The Herald described the experience of travelling by omnibus as a form of “modern martyrdom.”) New Yorkers made some thirty-five million horsecar trips a year at the start of the decade. By 1870, that figure had tripled.

The standard horsecar, which seated twenty, was drawn by a pair of roans and ran sixteen hours a day. Each horse could work only a four-hour shift, so operating a single car required at least eight animals. Additional horses were needed if the route ran up a grade, or if the weather was hot. Horses were also employed to transport goods; as the amount of freight arriving at the city’s railroad terminals increased, so, too, did the number of horses needed to distribute it along local streets. By 1880, there were at least a hundred and fifty thousand horses living in New York, and probably a great many more. Each one relieved itself of, on average, twenty-two pounds of manure a day, meaning that the city’s production of horse droppings ran to at least forty-five thousand tons a month. George Waring, Jr., who served as the city’s Street Cleaning Commissioner, described Manhattan as stinking “with the emanations of putrefying organic matter.” Another observer wrote that the streets were “literally carpeted with a warm, brown matting . . . smelling to heaven.” In the early part of the century, farmers in the surrounding counties had been happy to pay for the city’s manure, which could be converted into rich fertilizer, but by the later part the market was so glutted that stable owners had to pay to have the stuff removed, with the result that it often accumulated in vacant lots, providing breeding grounds for flies.

The problem just kept piling up until, in the eighteen-nineties, it seemed virtually insurmountable. One commentator predicted that by 1930 horse manure would reach the level of Manhattan’s third-story windows. New York’s troubles were not New York’s alone; in 1894, the Times of London forecast that by the middle of the following century every street in the city would be buried under nine feet of manure. It was understood that flies were a transmission vector for disease, and a public-health crisis seemed imminent. When the world’s first international urban-planning conference was held, in 1898, it was dominated by discussion of the manure situation. Unable to agree upon any solutions—or to imagine cities without horses—the delegates broke up the meeting, which had been scheduled to last a week and a half, after just three days.

Then, almost overnight, the crisis passed. This was not brought about by regulation or by government policy. Instead, it was technological innovation that made the difference. With electrification and the development of the internal-combustion engine, there were new ways to move people and goods around. By 1912, autos in New York outnumbered horses, and in 1917 the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar made its final run. All the anxieties about a metropolis inundated by ordure had been misplaced.

And for completeness, here’s the interestingly named Jennifer 8. Lee in the New York Times, with the very practically titled, When horses posed a public health hazard.

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2 Comments on “Why did travellers stop using horses?”

  1. Brad Hall says:

    A lot of parallels with the current carbon debate. If our carbon emissions fell out of our exhaust pipes and on to the street, people would be able to easier understand the problem.

    It is interesting to note, from the 1898 conference, that if the future can’t be visualised, people can’t address the problem.

  2. Equine Abby says:

    Sometimes the problem just solves itself. Now we have pollution from exhaust instead of manure.


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