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.