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.”
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]