Been There, Done That

When the automobile was the world’s technological savior

It is hard to believe that we are barely more than a century away from the absolute apogee of horse power in the U.S.  Of course, I refer not to the metric that describes the power output of machines, but literally to power from horses.

According to experts, 1910 was the year in which the population of working horses inhabiting this country was at its peak, some 26 million head. Each and every one of them required five acres of farm land to produce its required annual ration of fodder. This is why when you walk in the woods of New England, you encounter stone walls. One hundred years ago, those woods were cultivated farm land, 130 million acres worth, dedicated to supporting the horse economy. Wholesale clearing of forests was one environmental effect of the horse-based economy in 1910.

Horse-,drawn wagon loaded with 175 sacks of wheat beside freight car.

Equally remarkable, a huge percentage of those 26 million horses in the U.S. inhabited urban centers, cheek by jowl with the human population they served. Rather than rural bumpkins, horses of the late 19th and early 20th century were city slickers. One hundred thirty thousand of them worked in New York’s borough of Manhattan alone. Horses lived in multi-story, mid-rise stables just like their fellow human urbanites with their walk-up flats.

Now, here’s the point. Much like the car of today, wherever the horse appeared in the urban centers of Britain, Europe, or the U.S., he was the object of universal excoriation and condemnation as a scourge, a menace, a polluter, and a source of societal ills ranging from lowering the moral tone of society, to being the cause of urban noise and air pollution. The working horse of the 1900s was far from the beloved pet and companion portrayed in National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, and Black Beauty. The horse of the 19th century was no more than a living machine to be operated at minimum cost and maximum output.

Horse-drawn delivery trucks, Schlitz Brewery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

With the advent of first, wide-spread steam power, and then electrification, the demand for horses went up as the 19th century progressed, not down. While electric trolleys and steam railroads moved massive numbers of goods or passengers along preset routes and stops, it required the horse to service the demand for transporting those same passengers or goods from the depot to their ultimate destination, whether to the countless wholesalers, distributors, and vendors in the urban center, or to the off-line homes of a growing suburban workforce. Horses were the crucial bridge between the “wholesale” and “retail” power supply in the 1900s. Horses bridged the gap between the freight terminus and the door step. Local distribution was the province of horse vans, horse trucks, horse carts, horse wagons, horse carriages, and horse cabs.

Refuse removal presented as big a problem as goods and passenger distribution. Whether the refuse was from human consumption of food or goods, the refuse created by the tens of thousands of urban horses themselves, or snow removal, horses were the sole source of individualized power. Horses on treadmills powered pumps, mills, mixers, hoists, derricks, and even riverine ferries. Greater human ease was paid for by the greater forced labor of the horse.

A horsedrawn streetcar. Rapid transit. Covington Ga.

In New York of the 1880s, twelve thousand horses and mules transported over one hundred sixty million passengers annually. While the horses of the rich might be cosseted with relatively light duties and impeccable care, the lot of the average urban horse was one of unceasing labor, and once fully depreciated in account books sometimes over a period as short as a mere four or five years due to physical breakdown, he was sold for salvage. In France, where horses were commonly slaughtered for food, it was the practice to shave broken-down horses for the value of their hair, and then to drive them, naked, some hobbling on three legs, head down with glazed eyes, through public streets to their slaughter.

Being in intimate proximity to the daily production of the needful energy to operate 19th and early 20th century urban society may have been a bit much for the fastidious. Just as people today do not want to see where their hamburgers come from, so the making of traction energy in the 19th century was a rough process that was just as well not observed too closely; the sight of sweating, straining beasts slipping on pavement and lunging into their harnesses, and worse, literally dying in harness, was perhaps more than a little off-putting. A growing demand for the humane treatment of horses advocated that systematic human abuse damaged society’s moral consciousness. By extension, the elimination of the horse as a power source in favor of the internal combustion engine was a necessary step in creating a more civilized and orderly society.

Sartori in A[lfred] G[wynne] Vanderbilt_s 250 horse power auto.

Commentators of the period also refer to the cities of the period being beset by noise from the clatter of iron hoofs, the clash of steel tires on cobblestones, the creak of axles without ball bearings, the crack of whips and shouts of teamsters. The coming of the automobile was seen as the bringer of blessed silence due to its rubber tires and high technology bearings.

While filth and noise, and even moral hazard were objectionable properties of the horse-centered world of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the horse’s most vexing problem was that he was a real and present threat to human life and limb. Described as a willful, unreliable brute, one commentator continues by pointing out that the horse is a dangerous motor, liable at any moment to take fright at umbrellas, flying newspapers, wheelbarrows, or strange noises. “The ravages of the runaway horse,” according to one reporter for The Horseless Age, “are not appreciated because the occurrence is too common. Scarcely a day passes that someone is not killed or maimed by a wild outbreak of this untamable beast. The sight of a rampant, terror-stricken horse dashing through a crowded city street is one of the most terrible that can be witnessed and will be as long as the horse is compelled to perform his present part in the world’s work.” The automobile was wholly immune from these desperate afflictions.

Austrian army auto hauled by 6 horses

Throughout the 19th century, horse accidents rose steadily caused by bolting horses, overturning carriages, collisions, drunk driving, and excessive speed. New York in 1867 experienced four fatalities and another forty pedestrian injuries per week. While some of this was caused by the lack of clear traffic laws, poor enforcement of those that existed, and extreme congestion and gridlock during peak traffic hours, the skittish nature of the horse was perhaps the largest contributor. As late as 1903 in Paris, fifty-three percent of all accidents involved horse-drawn carriages.

The next time someone condemns the automobile as a societal scourge, it might be useful to consider the prevailing view of the horse in 1910. Today, the 1910 view of the automobile as the world’s technological savior from the ill effects of the horse is long gone. Indeed, it is not even known or remembered. We should be aware that no powerful and transformative technology confers only benefits. In sufficient quantities, the best medicine can turn toxic.

Now here is one last prognostication about the new-fangled automobile, the universal social panacea for urban life, from 1902: The Car magazine comments in an editorial describing the congestion-alleviating benefits of the motor car. “Traffic would be facilitated by one hundred percent. There would be the space taken up by the horses, and there would be a swifter motion.”

Autonomous automobiles, anyone?

Top photo: Library of Congress.