In 2004, Stephen Davies the education director at the neoliberal Institute for Economics Affairs in London wrote an article titled the “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.” In it, he sang the virtues of technology, “science” and free markets at solving major problems. He proclaimed that the great manure crisis just “vanished” when millions of horses were replaced by motor vehicles, primarily through price mechanisms and technology. What a bogus account of what really happened. The success came about through civic leadership- there were far fewer sub-zeros on the scene.
No reader here has access to anyone who could describe the rather long transition from horse to car. I could have gotten the story first hand from my grandfather, but he died in 1986 at age 96. It’s hard to even visualize or imagine, but the first photo shows a New York City street in 1894.
The chart below shows the transition, which in reality was hard fought. My maternal grandfather established the first Harley Davidson and auto dealerships in northeastern Oregon (LaGrande) in about 1915. However, he was a pioneer in the industry.
Notice that even in 1920 non-farm horses were still common, 26 years after the “horse manure crisis.” In fact, it wasn’t until well into the roaring ’20s that the transition away from horses and their manure was complete.
London in 1900 still had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world.
Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time. It was estimated that New York City in 1900 had 100,000 horses producing 2.5-million pounds of horse manure every day. Horse carcasses rotted in the streets.
The public suffered severely from epidemics that included three massive contagious diseases: cholera, typhus and influenza. These infectious diseases were often fatal or left its victim weakened in their defense against other diseases. The main cause of these illnesses was attributed to the poor sanitation conditions and unpaved streets with ankle-deep mud.
The horse manure crisis had to be dealt with for nearly 35 years after 1894. The solution — at least until the new technology replaced the old — was dedicated civic reform, sanitation and good governance. The sub-zero neoliberals seem to want to skip over that and in a dishonest way.
The sanitation department in New York was created as the Department of Street Cleaning, but it wasn’t actually made effective until 1895. Only then did the people who worked for the department actually collect garbage and sweep the streets. These are some photographs, taken for Harper’s Weekly, of streets in New York in 1893.
Civic reformer Colonel George E. Waring, Jr. (1833-1898) pioneered and conquered the horse manure crisis through civic measures — not the B.S. about new technology and the price mechanism. He instituted such current practices as recycling, street sweeping and a dedicated uniformed cleaning and collection force called the White Wings. Waring’s men cleared a shin-deep accumulation of waste across the city. He also kept domestic sewage separate from storm runoff.
Before and after. Note the clean up paved the way for both the street car and motorized vehicles.
Now, I hope you take a few minutes to view some wonderful color footage of New York City between 1900 and 1919. Notice that there are plenty of horses still on the streets. The difference from 1894 was that the civic structure cleaned it up! Spot the White Wing in the lower left at about 12 seconds into the clip. Well done. Bravo!
Winter Watch Takeaway
Good governance, getting rid of sub-zero officials (aka kakistocracy) and rolling up one’s sleeves still holds the key to quality of life — not waiting around for new technology and the excuse of invisible-hand “price mechanisms.” Further, as we showed in “The Predatory Conspiracy to Wipe Out Street Cars,” corruption and capture played a major role in the dominance of autos, which brought with them a whole new set of negative externalities.