When the “White Wings” cleaned up New York

By all accounts, the city in the 19th century was filthy. Household garbage got tossed out behind tenements, and roads were lined with animal carcasses, crap, and ashes. Rubbish-pickers took what they could and sold it to bone-boiling plants; the rest was left to hogs, and then to rot. In the summer, the stench must have been unbearable.

The city established a Department of Sanitation in 1881, but it didn’t really help the situation. Enter George Waring, hired as commissioner in the Department of Street Cleaning in 1895. He treated the department as an army, mandating that street cleaners wear white uniforms to convey a sense of cleanliness. Hence their nickname, the “White Wings.”

The White Wings cleaned up the streets, and Waring launched the city’s first waste-disposal programs. After sanitizing New York City, he took a job doing the same thing in Cuba. There he contracted yellow fever. He died in his apartment at The Rutherford in 1898.

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5 Responses to “When the “White Wings” cleaned up New York”

  1. Review of Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life « Discard Studies Says:

    […] single lens microscopes that saw some of the first bacteria; an early Edison film of George Warings White Wings; racial “cleansing” posters and practices from Nazi Germany; Santiago Sierra’s 21 […]

  2. New York City’s free-roaming, trash-eating pigs | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] refuse in the rivers, and a decade later, the first garbage incinerators are built. In the 1890s, George Waring’s “White Wings” finally cleaned the city […]

  3. When sick New York City kids attended class outdoors | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] advances in sanitation, New York City at the cusp of the 20th century was a breeding ground for illness, especially in the city’s […]

  4. Bruce H. Robertson Says:

    Horse-drawn wagons were still numerous in the 1930’s and so were the horses’ leavings. The white wings had as their tools broom, shovel, and a trash can on a two-wheeled cart..

  5. New York moms: don’t toss trash out the window | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] in the 1890s, a corps of sanitation men nicknamed the White Wings and led by a Civil War veteran turned “sanitary engineer” launched a war on filth—now known to be a source of many […]

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