It has become common to think of the time before automobiles as a kind of Eden for Western cities: no pollution, no congestion, no costly parking or maintenance, no noise. But anyone who has written about cites in the pre-industrial era knows differently. Before cars, trains, and tramways, all goods and people were transported by horse-drawn vehicles, and their sheer numbers caused problems that we can scarcely imagine.
In researching a novel based partly in Paris of the early nineteenth century, I was astounded by the continual mention of horses in the primary sources. Paris in 1820 had approximately 725,000 human residents. Every day, as many as 35,000 horses would be in the city, doing the work now performed by trucks, buses, cars, subways, streetcars, and trains. Sturdy draft horses, high-spirited thoroughbreds, ancient nags, docile saddle mounts, intrepid mules and donkeys – all pulled carts, drays, carriages, wagons, stagecoaches, gigs, and every kind of vehicle to which they could be hitched.
The presence of so many animals required an elaborate infrastructure to house, feed, and – not least – clean up their leavings. Stables were as ubiquitous as the corner garage in our day, and at least as expensive. Prodigious amounts of fodder and hay were required and, in the course of nature, the oats, corn, and barley were left – in another form – on all the city’s streets.
A horse produces between 15 and 35 pounds of manure a day. Taking 20 pounds as a conservative average, 35,000 animals meant 700,000 pounds of manure each day that had to be cleared. Paris had an efficient municipal service for clearing much of this immense volume, which was loaded on to wagons (more horses!), then used as fertilizer in surrounding areas. Inevitably, however, not every part of the city was swept with equal efficiency, and piles of fresh manure accumulated. Even Mozart complained in a letter to his father as early as 1778: “…for really the mud in Paris is beyond all description.” Here, “mud” can be understood as a polite reference to small mountains of horse manure. Rain only worsened matters.
Swarms of flies were drawn to the manure, and they were regarded as a daily curse in the poorer parts of the city. Everyone complained of the ever-present stink. And when the manure was left to dry, it created a fine dust that was blown everywhere.
The curse of horse manure grew in all the great cities throughout the nineteenth century – New York, London, and Paris all vastly increased their use of horses as they became great industrial centers. The problem seemed insuperable – there were over 80,000 horses in Paris in 1880 – and then, virtually overnight, it vanished with the advent of the automobile. One form of pollution replaced another, but that didn’t become clear for many more generations.
About the author: Thad Carhart is the author of the historical novel, ACROSS THE ENDLESS RIVER (available in paperback October 2010 from Anchor Books) which tells the story of Sacagawea’s son, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Visithttp://acrosstheendlessriver.tumblr.comfor photos of the real inspiration behind Baptiste’s fictional journey.
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