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When doctors told their urban patients to leave the polluted environs of the city to find fresher, more wholesome climates, they had good reason. The urban centers of the industrial age were not pretty places to live. Between overcrowded living conditions, poor disposal of sewage and garbage, unregulated factories spewing their poisonous wastes into the air and water, it’s a wonder any of the city’s inhabitants enjoyed good health at all.

Yet, in researching the sights, smells and sounds of big city living, I was surprised to find that the culprit blamed for most of the urban pollution at the time, described by one New York City authority at the turn-of-the-century as ‘an economic burden, an affront to cleanliness and a terrible tax on human life,’ was not any of the above-mentioned ills, but was in fact, the horse. Yep. That’s right. The horse.

That romantic image of our bygone eras was (in the cities at least) a problem so complex that in 1898 it shut down a scheduled ten-day international convention on urban planning in just three short days. What to do with the poo was the insurmountable question of the day. Sanitary experts at that time estimated that a single horse would produce, on average, 22 lbs. of manure a day and about a quart of urine. Multiply that by the more than 100,000 horses found in New York City alone in 1900 and, well, I’m not a math whiz, but even I can tell you, that’s a whole load of by-product to contend with.

Vacant lots were piled high with the stuff, sometimes as deep as 40-60 feet. One late 19th-century doomsayer predicted that by the 1930s the streets of New York would all be piled in manure as deep as the city’s 3rd-story windows if something wasn’t done about it. Not only was the problem a smelly one, it was also a major health issue. I’ve been around enough barns to know that where there is manure, there are also flies, and lots of them. Health officials in 1900 estimated around 3 billion flies were hatched per day in the horse manure of US cities, each one a potential bearer of disease.

And manure wasn’t the only issue. Urban horses were often the victims of accidents and ill-usage (think Mr. Nicholas Skinner in Black Beauty). In 1880 New York City removed an average of 41 horse carcasses a day from its city streets. The following picture, taken in the early 1900s, shows children playing in the street right next to a dead horse. If that doesn’t scream “health issue,” I don’t know what does.

It’s really no wonder our 19th-century forbears hailed the “horseless carriage” as the answer to all their environmental woes. Ironic, I know, but maybe not as far-fetched as it seems. Did you know that manure produces methane gas that is eight times more potent to global warming than CO2? Certainly something to ponder.

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