The Good Old Days in New York City

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The “I wish I’d been born back in the good old days” is a common statement. I wonder if the folks who say that really have thought that through? My Dad always said that the “good old days weren’t all that good”, as he was a kid during the dirty 30s.
I was reading an article recently that talked of the problems of New York City in 1894. In 1890, there were 2.7 million people in the city, with a density of 43,000 per square mile. By 1894 there was an estimated 150,000 horses working on the streets of the city every day. Anything that had to move, people or freight, was hauled by horses. In the article it stated that on a daily basis there was an incredible three million pounds (that’s 1500 tons) of manure produced by the horses daily. That’s figuring 15-30 pounds per horse, depending on the size of the animal, and that is an accurate assessment.

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On top of all that manure, there was the added 40,000 gallons of urine. My sinuses burn just pondering that! The city had crews that all they did, day in and day out, was shovel and haul that waste out of the streets. At first, area farmers utilized it, but as the city grew, they couldn’t keep up. The manure was then piled in vacant lots into mounds reaching 50-60 feet high and probably very long as well. I don’t know how they mounded it so high, as the article didn’t clarify that.
The article spoke of the plague of flies that befell the city during the warmer seasons. Illnesses carried by those flies sickened and killed many people. The deep canyons of the buildings didn’t allow for ventilation and the heat and, when dry, dust that was stuck in between the buildings would have been terrible. Added to the pollutants of factories and chimneys, it would have been unbreathable.
It was mentioned that there were people who stood at street crossings, who, for a price, would shovel a path across for those who were well off enough to afford it, so they didn’t have to soil their footwear or clothing. Mind you, ladies wore dresses that swept the ground, along with petticoats, so they would have become filthy if they had to walk into the street. If it was rainy or the snow was slushy, passing wagons and carriages would also splash on passersby. I’ve read accounts of strong men who hired themselves out to carry people on their backs across the nasty streets in cities, too. Of course, ladies wouldn’t be able to ride piggy back, what with their skirts and the rules of behavior at the time.
The crush of humanity and horsepower also resulted in people being run over by teams and wagons, or kicked by horses as they passed. It didn’t state any statistics on deaths for that time, but one would think that people were killed regularly.
People weren’t the only casualties though. It stated in the article that in 1880, the death toll on horses in the streets was 36 head per day on average, adding up to around 15,000 a year. Those horses died from many ailments, ranging from colic to overwork. The grim scene portrayed in the book Black Beauty would have been very accurate for horses worked on those tough streets. The dead horses also had to be dealt with and their removal would have been quite difficult, I’m sure. Imagine a 1900 pound draft horse and no tractor or loader to pick it up. My oh my, that would have been a job. Especially amidst the traffic of a city like that. The article didn’t state what was done with the carcass, but perhaps it was composted in the mounds of manure.
So, though I too pine for a simpler time and have even daydreamed about having a gentle buggy horse to enjoy, the “good old days” in the cities as our nation was growing, were not all that good, and I’m glad that I didn’t have to be in the midst of that. For that matter, I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel to be in New York City today!

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About Jan Swan Wood

Jan was raised on a ranch in far western South Dakota. She grew up horseback working all descriptions of cattle, plus sheep and horses. After leaving home she pursued a post-graduate study of cowboying and dayworking in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota....

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