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Grand Prix Day by Frederick Childe Hassam

 

Abandon all romantic thoughts about horses and think of horse manure. It was a problem that was growing as the large cities grew even larger. Toward the end of the 19th century, the waste product of horse digestion covered the city streets in thick layers.  For the city councils, it was a headache for which there was no soothing pill. Each day in Paris, 90,000 horses needed to be fed and their waste disposed of somehow. London and New York experienced an even worse calamity.

It was generally thought that the first international conference on urban planning would bring a solution. The year was 1898 and the symposium of one-week duration opened with great pomp in New York, the most dynamically growing city in the world. Attendees arrived from many world’s capitals.  The New York’s mayor led the opening speeches at the City Hall and journalists competed in speculation about what would be the outcome of the high-level conference. Horse manure was the main subject. But the meeting of the city planners ended quietly after three days of failure. No solution was found.

At the time of the conference, London could boast of the world’s first ever underground rail system but eleven thousand horse-driven taxis still carried people on the surface. The passenger transport used horse-drawn buses. A standard car, with twenty seats and a pair of horses, worked sixteen hours a day. The animals were not allowed to work for more than four hours, so at least eight horses were needed for one car. During hot weather, it was necessary to use fresh horses more often.  The transport of heavy goods needed a stream of freight wagons pulled by four to twelve horses. The driving force of London was about 190,000 horses, each producing up to 50 pounds of waste per day. Each day, London’s four-legged population yielded about four and a half million pounds of dung. Add to it the hectolitres of horse urine and you cannot be surprised that the turn of the century was called the Age of Decay. A New York newspaper of the time complains that the whole city “is covered with brownish smoking carpet that stinks to high heaven”. On hot days, it was preferable to live behind closed doors and windows.

pailleux

Horses needed hay feed and straw for bedding. Delivery wagons, such as these, were a common sight in the cities.

 

Nobody wanted the manure. The farmers had enough of their own. The only people happy about the situation were real estate speculators, who purchased cheap parcels of land and converted them into dung depots. There, the heaps of manure reached up to 15 meters high which did not help the air quality in the cities.

As if that was not enough, there were horse carcasses, each weighing about one thousand pounds. Many horses were left where they died by unscrupulous owners. Their bodies were a paradise for flies and various insects, as well as for rats. In New York, about 15,000 carcasses were removed every year from the streets.

Hygiene and cleanliness seemed to be unreachable goals as the conference ended on a gloomy note. The dire prognosis envisaged that, at the current rate of growth, in 1930 large cities streets would be buried under three meters of manure. No one could imagine cities without horses.  And so, burdened with black thoughts of a bleak future, the participants left for home after only three days. However, as we know, cities eventually did not drown in horse manure. Automobiles and electric tramways saved us just in time.

Related post:

Crinolines and Impériales: Public Transport in Paris

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