The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

An interesting article from the Foundation for Economic Education reminds us that crises are often solved by the development of new technology.  As an example, they offer the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.

Nineteenth-century cities depended on thousands of horses for their daily functioning. All transport, whether of goods or people, was drawn by horses. London in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all horse-powered. There were also several thousand buses, each of which required 12 horses per day, a total of more than 50,000 horses. In addition, there were countless carts, drays, and wains, all working constantly to deliver the goods needed by the rapidly growing population of what was then the largest city in the world. Similar figures could be produced for any great city of the time.

The problem of course was that all these horses produced huge amounts of manure. A horse will on average produce between 15 and 35 pounds of manure per day. Consequently, the streets of nineteenth-century cities were covered by horse manure. This in turn attracted huge numbers of flies, and the dried and ground-up manure was blown everywhere. In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced 2.5 million pounds of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of.

In 1898 the first international urban-planning conference convened in New York. It was abandoned after three days, instead of the scheduled ten, because none of the delegates could see any solution to the growing crisis posed by urban horses and their output.

The problem did indeed seem intractable. The larger and richer that cities became, the more horses they needed to function. The more horses, the more manure. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. Moreover, all these horses had to be stabled, which used up ever-larger areas of increasingly valuable land. And as the number of horses grew, ever-more land had to be devoted to producing hay to feed them (rather than producing food for people), and this had to be brought into cities and distributed—by horse-drawn vehicles. It seemed that urban civilization was doomed.

Of course, urban civilization was not buried in manure. The great crisis vanished when millions of horses were replaced by motor vehicles.

There’s more at the link.  Interesting and worthwhile reading.



  1. More precisely we traded horse manure for hydrocarbon fumes, used oil waste, and vehicle emissions. It was probably a net gain, after a while.

  2. My grandfather, who was born in 1898, spoke of the work gangs from the local jail who were given the job of with horse poop removal. That's one thing that never shows up in movies and on television.

  3. A description of horse and carriage life in 1900. The three track roads are something they don't get accurate in television and movies. Also, I like holding ones breath when the horse sneezes.

    "But horses were everywhere, pulling surreys, democrats, buggies, cabs, delivery wagons of every sort on Main Street, and pulling harvesters on the tractorless farms out in the countryside.

    "The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage Iife were part of the universal American experience: he c!op-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of he brake being applied to ease the horse on the downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of  carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special maIe ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing  horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornful glance. During the Northern winter the jingle of sleigh bells was everywhere. On summer evenings, along the tree-lined streets of innumerable American towns, families sitting on their front porches would watch the fine carriages of the town as they drove pst for a proud evening's jaunt and the cognoscenti would wait eagerly for the glimpse of the banker's trotting pair or the sporting lawyer's 2:40 pacer. And one of the magnificent sights of urban life was that of the fire engine, pulled by three galloping horses, careening down a city street with its bell clanging."
    –'The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950' (1952), Frederick Allen Lewis

  4. In some case, when the streetcar lines in the major cities switched from horses to electricity, they began helping to haul away the refuse of the city: ash, trash, and manure. I believe New York City sent some of their refuse to fill in marshlands to provide additional land for development.

  5. Not just manure, but dead animals. There's a saying, If you have Livestock, you have deadstock. And they didn't have a big truck to haul away the dead to the rendering plant. Imagine that smell in July, as a 1200 lb animal lay rotting in the street.

    It's no wonder that the average lifespan was so much shorter as compared to today, although that doesn't stop the regulators from panicking (fining you)about your unfenced off stream that might get cow or horse manure in it, although nobody drinks unfiltered water anymore.

    Good article.

  6. TheOtherSean, mushroom growers purchased lots and lots of the manure and used it to grow their crops. When electric trolleys and then cars replaced horses, it terminated the mushroom business in New York and New Jersey.

    The urban environmental historian Joel Tarr has written some fascinating papers on the topic of horses and cities.


  7. " the cognoscenti would wait eagerly for the glimpse of the banker's trotting pair or the sporting lawyer's 2:40 pacer. "

    XD It's somehow comforting to know that even though the type of vehicle has changed, there's always someone to admire particularly fine examples thereof.

  8. LittleRed1, thanks for that interesting tidbit. I may have to check some of those papers out.

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