Right up until hundreds of thousands of Henry Ford’s cars began to replace them in wholesale lots, horses made the United States hum. They powered farm machinery and they hauled freight inside and outside metropolitan areas. And they caused a variety of public health problems, many of them serious.
According to one estimate, each urban horse consumed roughly 1.4 tons of oats and 2.4 tons of hay and other fodder per year. A contemporary British farmer reported that he figured each horse consumed the product of five acres of land, an area that could have fed six to eight people. Some 15 million acres were needed to feed just the urban horse population at its zenith, an area about the size of West Virginia. Directly or indirectly, feeding horses meant clearing new land of its natural animal life and vegetation, cultivating it, developing and growing new strains of crops, and sometimes diverting water to irrigate it, with considerable negative effects on the natural ecosystem.
In 1870, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 8.7 million horses in the U.S., with more than 1.5 million categorized as “not on farms.” By 1900, the total horse population had grown to 24.1 million with slightly less than three million in cities. In cities with populations of more than 100,000, there was roughly one horse for every 15 people, although that varied. In Kansas City, for instance, there was one horse for every 7.4 people while in New York City the ratio was one horse for very 26.4 people.
The rural hinterland near urban centers were tapped to supply staggering amounts of hay and other fodder. In the East, the New England states became a large hay-growing area to supply the needs of New York, Boston, and the other cities of the region. In other parts of the country, every agricultural area close to urban centers produced hay to help feed the growing numbers of urban horses.
The demand not only increased the acreage under cultivation for hay, but also led to the introduction of new hay crops including bluegrass, orchard grass, alfalfa, timothy, and white and red clover.
The problem with supplying hay to urban centers from their agricultural hinterlands was transporting the bulky product. As early as 1836 the hay press had been invented to press hay into bales for easier handling, storage, and transport. By the late 19th Century every small town had its hay press barn to house the press, which was generally powered by horses with the hay brought to town for pressing by area farmers.
Around these parts, the first hay press barn started operations on space rented on a local farm in September 1871. Others soon followed. And the customers were far from local, or even engaged in the Chicago market. As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent noted on March 7, 1872:
This is getting to be a big hay market; about 10 [rail] cars were left here on Saturday to be loaded for the Boston trade and about half of them have now gone forward.
In 1899, one expert estimated that nearly a third of the hay produced in rural areas was being shipped out of its county of origin. That year, Chicago imported nearly 198,000 tons of hay.
The need for urban forage also had important effects on which crops farmers chose to grow. In 1879, roughly 11 percent of the nation’s farmland was sown into hay crops. By 1889, it had jumped to nearly 15 percent.
Oats were the other staple crop of the horse trade. High in fiber and protein, oats were uniquely suited to the horse’s digestive system. The burgeoning oat markets for the horse trade led to a variety of innovations, including spurring the invention of the grain elevator and making Chicago a key grain shipping and marketing center.
Of course, what goes in must come out, and that’s where the era’s public health concerns began. Experts of the day estimated each horse produced between 15 and 30 pounds of manure per day. For Chicago, which had a horse population of 82,000 in 1900 (about when the city’s equine population reached its peak), that meant between 1.2 and 2.4 million pounds of manure were deposited on city streets and alleys and in city stables every day. Each horse also produced about a quart of urine daily, which in Chicago added up to around 20,500 gallons per day.
Wet weather turned unpaved city streets into swamps and rivers of muck, but dry weather brought little improvement as manure and urine-soaked mud dried. Traffic turned it into to fine dust—even in paved areas—which was then whipped up by the wind, choking pedestrians, coating buildings, and sifting into homes, businesses, and schools.
Although hay and oat shipments to the city were reciprocated with manure hauled back to the country for fertilizer, as the 19th Century wore on the surge in the number of urban horses caused the fertilizer market to crash. While early in the century farmers were happy to pay for the manure, by the end of the 1800s stable owners had to pay to have it carted off. As a result of this glut, which became particularly severe in the summer when farmers couldn’t spread the manure on their crops, which were already growing, vacant lots in cities across America were piled high with the stuff. In New York these piles sometimes towered 40 to 60 feet high.
And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, one contemporary expert estimated that in 1900 three billion flies—each a small mobile disease factory—hatched in horse manure every day in U.S. cities.
And it’s also part of the history of that day and age, and important to remember, that dead horses often littered city streets, creating yet more disease vectors.
In 1915, the horse population in America peaked at more than 21 million animals. But thanks to the introduction of the auto, they were replaced at the rate of about a half-million a year through the 1920s. By 1960, only about three million horses remained in the U.S. and the era of urban horsepower was long past.
During the time that literal horsepower was replaced with mechanical horsepower in the nation’s economy, millions of tons of horse manure, thousands of gallons of horse urine, and billions of flies were gradually eliminated from U.S. cities. When you think about it, the problems we face today caused by the glut of autos on our streets seem to pale in comparison to the conditions our great-grandparents took for granted.