With gas prices at an all-time high and promises of future increases that make me think I should buy a bicycle, I have had a few conversations with people about how we could eliminate the need for gas-fueled transportation. In a very small town where everything is right around the corner, walking or skating or bicycling might be good – unless you happen not to be able to do those things for whatever reason. And in a large city those forms of transportation are next to impossible if there is heavy traffic, or if you travel long distances to work, or if the weather is bad.
A few people have, more or less jokingly, suggested we should go back to the horse and buggy. Ah, the good old days when horses were beasts of burden! I can only imagine having one tied to a tree in my back yard happily grazing on tender plants or eating from a bag full of oats or taking an apple or a sugar cube out of my hand. (Did that really happy or was it just in the movies?) With grocery list in hand and empty saddle bags to hold my goods, we would gallop to the grocery store. The wind blowing through my hair as I ride, smiling as I pass by those poor souls stuck in traffic. What a beautiful picture.
I’m guessing fueling a horse would not be as expensive as maintaining and insuring a car. But then, what do I know? I’ve never owned a horse and city ordinances would probably prohibit my ever owning one in the city. Since there are no stables in my neighborhood I’d have to drive to get to my horse. Hmm. Sounds like that defeats the purpose of having a horse.
After dreaming for a minute or two of owning a horse, I started wondering about the times when horses and horse-drawn carriages were the only forms of transportation. My research uncovered some interesting facts, specifically pertaining to large cities and the inherent problems with using equine transportation in large populations.
Professor Joel A. Tarr, an expert on problems of America’s cities in the 1900s, wrote on the subject in a 1971 article in American Heritage Magazine. Large cities have been dealing for years with pollution caused by choking fumes of automobiles in heavy traffic. But according to Professor Tarr, horses, in their time, were every bit as polluting as the automobiles that replaced them.
Consider some of these facts. By the early 1900s writers for that time were demanding “the banishment of the horse from American cities”. In New York City there were upwards of 120,000 horses on the streets at any given time, and outspoken critics believed the only solution was the “horseless carriage”. One 1908 authority described horses as “an economic burden, an affront to cleanliness, and a terrible tax upon human life.”
To quote Professor Tarr’s article,
“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. In a 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”
According to Professor Tarr, and to further illustrate the depth (no pun intended) of the problem, at the turn of the century there were more than 3,500,000 horses in American cities and nearly 17,000,000 living in “more bucolic settings”.
Even after the advent of cars and streetcars, horses and mules were needed to pull the street cars when they were not fully electrified and “evidence” of their presence littered the streets creating a stench and permeating the atmosphere. Professor Tarr tells of efforts to keep city streets clean, fueled by fear of disease. “Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical authorities believed that such diseases [cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, or typhoid] were caused by a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth, among which horse manure was a chief offender.”
The aforementioned concerns, including fecal contamination and breeding of disease were not the only problems. Though we who are not constantly exposed to it may enjoy the echoing sounds of the rhythmic clip-clop, clip-clop of horses’ hooves on cobblestone, imagine that sound magnified thousands of times by the number of horses traveling through the city streets. Benjamin Franklin once complained of the “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, wagons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise” prevalent in the streets of Philadelphia. Scientific American, in a magazine article written in the 1890s, described the noises created by horses’ hooves actually making conversation difficult, if not impossible.
Another problem, not so much for human beings but for the horses themselves, included the harsh reality of their overwork and abuse. Today’s horses, living normal lives where they are properly cared for, can live 25 to 30 years. City horses in the 1900s were kept in deplorable circumstances in stables that were filthy and poorly ventilated. A horse accustomed to pulling a street car might live for two years. As a matter of fact, according to Professor Tarr, “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”.
Sometimes horses just died on the job. And because streets were uneven and cobbled, horses often tripped and broke a leg, which necessitated having them destroyed on the spot. Atlantic Monthly in 1866 wrote of streets being jammed with “dead horses and vehicular entanglements”. Professor Tarr states, “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.”
I think I’ve changed my mind about going back to the horse and buggy, though I still think having a horse to ride around my neighborhood would be a lot of fun. Well… maybe not on a hot summer day when I would probably be the only one in my family willing to clean up after our trusty steed.
Source: American Heritage Magazine – October 1971, Professor Joel A. Tarr