Today we hear a lot about the pollution caused by the vast numbers of motor vehicles that clog city streets and there have even been proposals to ban all automobile traffic from some of the larger city centers.
One hundred and fifty years ago however, decades before Karl Benz and his wonderful horseless carriage, cities all over the western world faced horrendous pollution problems from the transportation system then in common use, the urban horse (and mule). In fact, it has been written that, because of the noise, accidents, and filth caused by horse drawn chariots that Julius Caesar banned these vehicles from the vias and piazzas of ancient Rome between dawn and dusk. During the late 1800s, there were serious proposals to ban horses from some of the world's largest cities.
Until the early years of the nineteenth century, there were few horses in American cities – only the wealthy owned them. Everybody else walked wherever they wanted to go and most freight was hauled by oxen, while cattle were used for heavy draft work on farms as well. During the industrial revolution of the 1800s however, America's overall standard of living doubled and then doubled again. The population of the cities exploded due to the influx of rural folks and immigrants looking for jobs.
In the 1820s, regular stagecoach lines between cities were established, as well as large omnibuses for travel within the cities, both of which required large numbers of horses. Then, the omnibus was replaced by street railways with the cars pulled by horses and mules; one account says that each New Yorker rode the horse cars 297 times per year, so there must have been lots of horse cars and lots of horses. In addition, with more discretionary income, more and more people were buying carriages and buggies and horses to pull them. Heavier draft horses were developed and became popular for freight hauling, as well as farm work.
It all added up to a tremendous number of horses and mules crammed into the cities along with all the people. Each animal probably ate close to a ton and a half of oats and two and a half tons of hay per year, requiring several millions of acres of farm land to grow. And, of course, a lot of that food passed through the horse – between 15 and 30 pounds of manure and a quart of urine per horse per day. At the 1880 census, New York City had between 150,000 and 175,000 horses, who left behind 3 to 4 million pounds of manure and about 40,000 gallons of urine on the streets and in livery stables.
When it rained, every street was like a swamp of muck, sucking at pedestrian's shoes and the hems of the ladies' dresses. When dry, the manure was pounded into dust by passing traffic and blown into peoples faces, onto their clothes and into open windows. Entrepreneurs armed with brooms and shovels stood on street corners and, for a fee, cleared a path through the mess for people wanting to cross.
The manure piled up in vacant lots and any other vacant space, stank to high heaven, and bred billions of house flies, which carried all sorts of diseases. In 1900, officials in Rochester, N.Y., estimated that the horses in that city yearly produced enough manure to make a heap 175 feet high and covering an acre of ground, while breeding sixteen billion flies.
Breathing manure dust caused respiratory problems. Horses died, or were injured and shot in the streets and in many cases were left to rot or pushed into nearby streams or canals. Children played in the streets among all the filth – it's no wonder life expectancy in those days was so much less than today.
Horses often became spooked and ran away, killing and maiming drivers and passengers, bystanders, and themselves. They often trampled, kicked or bit people, and then there was always driver error where vehicles upset or ran into each other.
The problem became so bad that representatives from London, Paris and Moscow came to the first Urban Planning Conference in New York City in 1898 to discuss, among other things, the urban manure problem. Originally scheduled for ten days, the conference broke up after only three when delegates concluded there was no answer to the horse manure problem. The Times of London predicted that by 1950 every street in the city would be covered with nine feet of manure. A New Yorker thought that manure would be as high as the third story windows of Manhattan by 1930. Without the horse, however, cities would cease to function and people would starve – there seemed to be no solution.
But, there was a solution, and it turned out to be the very thing that's being claimed as causing much of our present-day pollution: the internal combustion engine. By 1912, for the first time, there were more automobiles in New York City than horses. Motor trucks took over heavy hauling duties from horses during the 1920s. Horses gradually disappeared from the streets, and along with them the stables, manure piles, muck, dust and flies. The truck and the car were believed at the time to have saved the environment, and they did save us from drowning in manure. Now, a lot of people think we need something to save us from the internal combustion engine.