I know it may be hard to believe, but a mere century ago we lived in an equine- based world. It was as impossible for our great-grandfathers to imagine a world with fewer horses, as it is difficult for us to envision a world with fewer internal combustion engines. It was a slower world, but it was definitely not a safer world. In 1900, with a population of just 3 ½ million people, a pedestrian in New York City was twice as likely to be killed by a horse drawn cart as a 21st century New York-er is to be killed by an automobile. In Chicago, which in 1900 had more horses than all of Iowa, the fatality rate was seven times what it is today. The reason was simple. Automobiles never panic, while horses often do. And amazingly, it was not a desire for safety that worried the turn-of-the-twentieth century worriers.
The logical doomsday prophets of 1900 saw their world being buried under an avalanche of horse manure and drowning in lakes of equine “lant”- aged urine. The traders in fertilizer could not keep up with the output, and by the 1880's stable owners, who had once seen the glut of horse poo as a profitable by-product, were having to pay to get rid of it. During the summer months the 200,000 horses working in N.Y.C. were daily dropping 4 million pounds of poo and 40,000 gallons of urine on city streets. The ubiquitous street sweepers could only pile the stuff up in vacant lots, occasionally to the height of sixty feet. This deluge of dung produced, by one estimate, 3 billion brand new horse flies every day.
In a heavy rain, city pavement was coated in a slippery foul smelling mud, inspiring the invention of the spat, a cloth covering for the shoe which could be easily removed and washed. In dry weather the desiccated dung became chocking air pollution. In 1894 the “Times of London” predicted that midway through the 20th century the English capital would be buried under 9 feet of horse manure. In New York the pessimists were even more pessimistic, predicting that come 1930 road roses would be blocking third story windows, and one critic argued that 20,000 residents died every year indirectly because of horse manure.
The growth career in 1900 was teamster, not railroad engineer In fact it was the railroads which owned the largest herds of horses, using them to transport goods from terminals to city shops. The traffic congestion dwarfed our current complaints. A horse and wagon took up half again as much space as a delivery truck, and moved at a fraction of the speed. The wheels of a horse drawn cart had to be as large as possible to minimize friction, and lower torque, but that made the wagons top heavy and prone to tipping over. And according to urban veterinarians, the average 1,300 pound horse fell once every 100 miles of travel on city streets. Most got back up, eventually, but by 1880, the city of New York was removing on average of 41 dead horses every day. Twenty years later, that number was skyrocketing.
The horse accommodation began on the farm. Each urban horse required 5 acres of farmland (6 to 8 times as much land as a human) and 40 to 50 hours of human labor to supply its 1 ½ half tons of oats and 2 ½ tons of hay a year. At its height between the world wars, the equine population of the United States required farmland equal in size to the state of West Virginia. But the world had found a way to not only live with the horse, but to profit from it as well.
Mixing horse urine with compost was a common source of nitrogen and ammonia fertilizer. In fact, after diluting it 1-8 with water, horse urine could be poured directly onto plants. Allowing urine, both horse and human, to “ferment” for several days would render it pure enough to be used directly as a cleaning fluid. This industry had always been so strong that two thousand years ago the Roman emperor Nero instituted the “Vectigal Urinae”, the urine tax, which proved so profitable that his successor, Vespasian, was quoted as saying “Pecunia non olet”, or, “Money doesn't smell” - predecessor and more descriptive than the modern, “Money Never Sleeps”.
And in 1900 industry still saw horses as a source for raw materials. Equine urine was used to soften hides in making leather, and as a fixate in dying cloth. Horse hair was used in plaster. Their fat was used in making soap. Their skin was used in making everything from shoes and clothing and suspension for wagons, to tack and bridles for living horses. Soaking unused scraps of horse leather also produced glue, which could also be made by grinding down horse teeth and bones, and then soaking the resultant powder, or just burning it to produce lime. And then there was horse meat. The familiarity with working horses bred such contempt for the creatures that cruelty was almost universally sanctioned. The average horse pulling an omnibus in N.Y. had a life span of only two years. But the moral indifference to their suffering could not overcome the social disapproval of the animal's protein being included in the diet for the rising middle class humans. Horse meat was still only for the poor.
This was the world in 1900, just as beset by crises and seemingly unsolvable problems as are faced by 21st century America. And yet the change, when it came, was breathtakingly abrupt. That which had at once seemed impossible to conceive of was suddenly obvious and easily achieved. In 1900 there were only 4,000 automobiles in all of America. Ten years later there were a quarter of a million sold in one year . In 1912, for the first time, more cars were bought than horses. And to everyone's stunned surprise, there were better ways to make glue, and clothing, and fertilizer, and even cheaper ways to soften leather. Inorganic chemistry replaced organic chemistry as the main tool of industry, now essential for growing crops and creating medicines. And few of the 9 million horses in the United States today have to work for a living. (Only China has more horses than America.)
The idea that we continue to incinerate our limited supply of the material we also depend upon to fertilize our food and synthesize our life saving medicines seems increasingly absurd - almost as absurd as the idea of funneling our entire economy through large panicky, toxic waste producing and vulnerable creatures plodding through the crowded unhealthy streets of our cities.
The truth is, human progress has never been about solving problems. It is about those moments when we decided we can not longer live with the problems we have, so we trade them for another set of problems we can live with for awhile. The idea that there has ever been or ever will be a perfect world is as much a fantasy as the idea of doomsday. Things don't get better, they change. And the only time things get worse, is when you start thinking you can stop them from changing. And that, I think, is just simple horse sense.
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