Horses were a part of everyday life in the days before the motor car made its grand entrance, but they were a necessary evil and there were insurmountable problems that went along with them.
Flies, as any horse or stable owner knows, hang around barns and horses laying their eggs in the manure piles, buzzing around the eyes and pooping on everything. Imagine living in a world where there were horses and manure piles everywhere? Divine for the flies, and horrendous for the humans. Horse manure carried tetanus spores within it, and while this is not a health risk in itself, the three billion flies that hatched daily in manure in larger cities at the turn of the century carried filth and disease. Studies have shown that outbreaks of diseases in the 19th century can be traced back to spikes in the fly population.
Horse accidents were far more common in the “good old days” than we could imagine despite the slow speeds. In one study it revealed that in 1900, there were 200 people killed in horse related accidents in New York City. In 2003 there were 344 auto related fatalities, so taking into consideration the population increase, the per capita fatalities in 1900 were about 75 per cent higher than today.
Horses, unlike cars, have minds of their own and can spook, shy, jump or take off in fright and bystanders were trampled, kicked, knocked over and bitten. The massive omnibuses were particularly risky as they were top heavy with poor brakes and large wheels. The narrow streets required tight turns and this, added to the drivers who were often reckless, saw many of these multi people moving ‘buses’ topple over.
Today the sounds of horses hooves clip clopping down a dirt road or across a tarmac road brings a smile to the face. But, back in the 1800s and 1900s the constant clatter or wagon wheels and horse shoes on cobblestones was enough to drive anybody mad. The sheer number of horses and horse drawn carriages meant congestion and consternation everywhere. There were no traffic laws, no stop signs, yield signs, and a right of way belonged to whoever got there first. A horse and carriage also took up a lot of room, were longer than today’s trucks, and steep hills in cities made it very tough for the horses to get started if pulling a load.
Sadly too horses fell often on the wet or snowy and icy cobblestones which offered far less traction than the dirt roads they replaced. If the driver was able to get the poor beast on its feet again, the horse was more than often injured. If really badly hurt it was then shot on the spot, or worse, left to die in the street causing a major and eventually very smelly blockage. Removal carriages were used but didn’t have the technology of today to make the task of removal easy. The result was that often the carcass was left to rot before being cut up into pieces.
As mentioned in Part I, owners preferred to work a small group of horses to death rather than have a larger number and work them less and more kindly. The average streetcar horse might have a lifespan of two years and records show that in New York about 41 horses a day were removed from the streets.
The stable situations in larger cities were at crisis level as more and more horses came into the cities to accommodate the growing human population. Horses were crammed into small spaces, manure piles were like mountains and flies were everywhere. In 1872 the Great Epizootic Epidemic killed about 5 per cent of the horses in the northeast and made countless others unusable. In Boston many of the fire horses were sick or dead, and fires burned many homes and businesses while goods piled up on the docks, and food costs soared without the horse power to move them to consumers.
Finally there was some light at the end of the tunnel: Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA to deal with animal welfare in 1866, and in the 1890s a street sweeping service was started by Col. George E. Waring that spread from New York to many other cities. Finally, rules of the road were created in the early 20th century. However, there was another major change to come: the improvement in the internal combustion engine, better road services, and the cheaper cost of operating and owning a car made this new invention a must have for many. While there were just over 4,000 vehicles sold in 1900, this number had risen to 356,000 in 1912. The horse was not replaced overnight but by 1912, there were more cars that horses in New York City for the first time.
As odd and unbelievable as it seems to us today, the car was seen as the saviour and solution to the horse population and environmental issues at the turn of the century.