When We Switched From Horses To Cars: How Did We Stop Riding Horseback Everywhere?

By | December 2, 2020

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(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

We may look back at the horse-and-buggy days as a simpler, quaint, and romantic time when life moved at a slower pace and people formed strong bonds with their horses, but the realities of life during this time were far less picturesque. Specifically, there was poop everywhere. In fact, horses caused such sanitation issues in large cities that urban planners were desperate for a solution. Fortunately, the invention of the automobile came at just the right time, and we switched from horses to cars.

Horse Poop: A Serious Problem

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution meant that more goods were being produced and distributed, which in turn increased the demand for horses to haul goods and people. In the United States alone, horses in urban areas outnumbered people three to one by the 1890s. That translated to a lot of manure, the disposal of which became a growing problem—literally. Any empty lot became a dumping ground for horse manure, and the heaps grew taller than four-story buildings.

It was not only an unpleasant sight (and smell) but a serious health concern. The manure attracted flies by the millions, and those insects carried diseases. Rotting manure and horse urine seeped into the groundwater, contaminating wells and municipal water supplies. Infant mortality and other deaths spiked due to typhoid from contaminated water, but the winters may have been the worst. All that dung dried out and turned to dust in the cold, dry air, which was then breathed in by city dwellers.

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(B.J. Ford/Wikimedia Commons)

Dead Horses

Avalanches of poop weren't the only problem urban horses posed, at least not directly. Horses in those days, especially those living in urban areas, did not have long life spans, and wading through oceans of their own poop all day wasn't very good for them, either. A lot of them dropped dead right in the streets, and moving so much actual dead weight was no small undertaking. As a result, dead or dying horses that collapsed in the streets were merely abandoned and left to rot until they decomposed enough that they could be easily dismembered and remove in pieces. The corpses were often tossed into the giant manure piles, and all in all, it was a horrific, stinky, and unsanitary issue.

The problem of urban horses and their excessive waste was not a new one in the 1890s. In fact, it had been a scourge of cities since antiquity. Julius Caesar even took the drastic step of banning horses and horse-drawn carts from the streets of Rome between dawn and dusk in an attempt to reduce the waste in the streets and its accompanying gag-inducing effects. That wasn't a feasible solution in the Industrial era, though, so Caesar proved to be no help to urban leaders looking for answers.