What horses left behind in the 19th century city

Without the estimated 170,000 horses pulling street cars and delivery wagons at any given time in the late 1800s, the city would never have become an economic powerhouse.

But all those equines created a filthy mess. Each horse produced several pounds of manure and more than a quart of urine a day—much of it deposited on city streets and sidewalks.

“Despite the presence of animals, the city had no systematic street-cleaning efforts,” wrote Columbia University professor David Rosner in an article called Portrait of an Unhealthy City: New York in the 1800s.

“During winter, neighborhoods sometimes rose between two and six feet in height because of the accumulation of waste and snow.”

“Dirt carters” would pick up the manure from the streets and haul it to specially designated “manure blocks,” where the waste attracted massive numbers of disease-transmitting flies.

Then there was the problem of working horses dropping dead in the street. “When a horse died, its carcass would be left to rot until it had disintegrated enough for someone to pick up the pieces,” wrote Rosner. “Children would play with dead horses lying in the street.” (As seen above, in an uncredited photo from 1900.)

In 1880, the city picked up 15,000 abandoned horse carcasses off the streets. With that in mind, the noise and pollution from vehicular traffic doesn’t seem so bad.

[photo at right: the last horsecar run in the city, July 1917, on Bleecker Street at Mercer]

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13 Responses to “What horses left behind in the 19th century city”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    Doesn’t look very appetizing, does it? There must have been a dead horse every few blocks for kids to play around with. Ugh!

  2. T.J. Connick Says:

    Rosner’s article is a pretty good lampoon of the kind of thing that is only possible after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on tertiary tuition. If it’s not a lampoon, it’s even funnier. The last time I heard of a population so at the mercy of its equine neighbors were Swift’s yahoos.

    Let’s raise the “neighborhood” of this horsey topic “two to six feet”, and we’ll skip the horseshit. Consider a bit of vanished New York (current dimensions), but narrowing the focus to racehorses.

    Fans of the turf had plenty of places to invest capital that they’d otherwise be wasting on trifles like the rent, groceries, and the kids’ shoes. Here follows a probably incomplete list of one-time tracks:

    Queens:
    Fashion Course in Corona: trotting
    Union Course in Woodhaven: trotting
    Centreville Course in South Ozone Park: trotting
    Jamaica Park in Jamaica: thoroughbreds
    Maspeth: thoroughbreds (under the lights, too!)

    Bronx:
    Fleetwood Course in Morrisania: trotting
    Jerome Park (under the reservoir now): thoroughbreds
    Morris Park in, well, Morris Park: thoroughbreds

    Brooklyn:
    Prospect Park (not actually in the park): trotting, but at least one season they ran thoroughbreds, too
    Gravesend: thoroughbreds
    Brighton Beach: thoroughbreds
    Sheepshead Bay: thoroughbreds

    And, a remarkable historical footnote: In the long, glorious history of the many tracks, there is not a single recorded instance of a dead horse lying unmoved until rotten enough to be carried away in pieces.

    Hope you forgive me for shifting course, but the Rosner article was such an unexpected inspiration, that I figured I’d take the liberty.

  3. Hannah Says:

    Soon there may be even less horses in New York if these animal rights advocates get the Hansom Cabs successfully pulled off city streets. Those Central Park carriages are among the dwindling, last vestiges of old New York.

  4. G. Says:

    A high resolution version of the top photo can be seen in all its gruesome detail at Shorpy.com at:

    http://www.shorpy.com/node/7521

  5. Roo Says:

    Horses produce considerably more than “several pounds” of manure and a quart of urine a day. 30-50lbs of manure and 2-4 gallons of urine per day is typical output for a 1000lb horse depending on diet.

  6. JTS Says:

    Roo – I think that’s just what got depositied on the street, the rest went into the stables. I once swaw an economic analysis of NY from the 1800s showing how the city could not grow any more becuase there was a limit on how far you could haul the excess horseshit out of the city. The sprawl of today would not have been possible without the automobile.

  7. Roo Says:

    Horses defecate every 2 hours or so around the clock. They urinate every 3-4. Horses during this time period worked *very* long days (indeed, it was far cheaper to work a horse to death with long hours and poor care and then just buy a new one when it dropped dead in the street than it was to feed and maintain one properly and work it reasonable hours with fair loads so it would stay sound for any length of time).

    Even at a rather conservative estimate of the horse being on the streets for 12 hours in a day they’d still be depositing 15-25lbs of manure and a couple of gallons of urine.

  8. WHAMMO! Says:

    Imagine what fun one could have with the corpse of a dead horse? :/

  9. Jean Says:

    It’s amazing to me that someone could read this article and see those images and STILL lambast those working to get horse-drawn carriages off of NY’s streets. As if overworking a horse in NYC’s summer heat or freezing winters wasn’t bad enough, in our modern world, our streets are incredible chaotic and adding horse-drawn carriages to the mix makes everything much more dangerous for the horses and people alike.
    I love New York and am a historian by trade. I can also recognize that some things from our history are not meant to live on into our modern era.

  10. When Fifth Avenue hosted a yearly horse parade « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] not so sure that the thousands of horses tasked to pull wagons day after day in New York’s pre-auto era were treated very […]

  11. Get a horse? Not so fast, buddy… | historyonthefox Says:

    […] but quite often their own bodies were left to rot where the unfortunate animals fell. (Courtesy Ephemeral New York […]

  12. esbee Says:

    19th century NY-kids play with dead horse
    20th century NY- kids hooked on horse (heroin)

    19th century NY-horse manure on every street
    20th century NY-porn on every street

    19th century NY-abundance of flies and rats
    20th century NY- abundance of flies and rats

  13. The 1904 horse auction house in the East Village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the era of the horse still in swing in 1903, Van Tassell and Kearney commissioned a new showroom and auction building at […]

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