While the overabundant automobile creates havoc in metropolitan America, we forget that it solved a big problem, too. A stinky one.
At the turn of the last century, with Henry Ford still just around the technological corner, the world’s largest cities were choking on horse manure.
In 1902, Kansas City counted 6,970 horses. Each produced perhaps 20 to 25 pounds of waste daily, the big draft horses much more. That works out to about 90 tons a day, much of it stirred into a stew of slop in rainy spells, swirling as dust on the dry days.
In truth, our calculus was nothing like that of New York or London. Recall those hansom cabs in all the Sherlock Holmes films? London had 11,000 of them. In 1894, The Times worried that within 50 years every street would be “buried under nine feet of manure.”
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Take the Big Apple, piling up the horse apples in every empty lot, sometimes more than four stories high. So figure into the equation a few billion summer flies. Not that many windows were screened yet. And last we checked, screens don’t keep out smell.
Another road bump for the era: Teamsters often worked their beasts to death, leaving behind on average a daily three dozen after they dropped dead in the traces in New York. And no one raced to clear them away before decomposition.
In 1893, Kansas City’s Equal Suffrage Club advocated higher skirt hems, maybe an inch or two. Shameless hussies? No, just women tired of all the crap.
It might take a bit of nerve, noted The Kansas City Daily Journal, but ladies faced with “the accumulated filth of the street from snagged and torn dress facings, will hail the incoming fashion with joyful song.”
One area group who called out for improvements was the United Wheelmen. As a national magazine for cycling enthusiasts slightly exaggerated in 1883: “Kansas City has no streets, and, consequently no riders.”
The Kansas City Star noted that, “There are plenty of men who would like to buy a wheel and go to and from their offices every day for exercise, but this city is paved in such a manner that there are one or two blocks of pavement to ride on and then one or two of mud.”
Some of that pavement was wooden blocks, worn into pulp by heavy hooves and wagon rims, effectively becoming filth sponges. One pedestrian declared their rotting smell sufficient to knock a man over.
The city tried to cope, dispatching machines to brush the dropping to the gutters for the shovel men. Twice a month for residential streets, twice a week on business routes, every night on the busiest thoroughfares. In 1890, Grand (now) Boulevard would take 11 passes per cleaning.
And what powered the sweeping machines? Horses.