The year was 1894. A strange problem plagued the large cities of the world; London, New York, and other respectable metropolises were drowning in horse manure. They called it “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.”
In retrospect, it is not hard to see why the crisis came about. After all, major cities like London and New York had copious amounts of horses within their city borders. They were the primary mode of transportation for the wealthy in their hansom cabs, used for policing and firefighting departments. In addition, they provided the horsepower for delivering food, textiles, and other goods to the cities.
When it came to measuring a city’s wealth and prestige, one could often do it based on the number of horses within it. Take, for example, London. The city stood as the Industrial Revolution powerhouse that was the icon of the late 18th Century. By 1900, London alone had 11,000 or more hansom cabs crowding the city streets and an additional 50,000 buses, in addition to the personal horses, working horses, police horses, etc., within the city walls. Across the pond, New York houses over 100,000 equine steads. Horses were everywhere in a thriving city. And thus, so were their less desirable partners: urine and manure.
To put into context the breadth of the issue, consider this: a single horse can produce upwards of 35 pounds of manure a day – the equivalent weight of a medium-sized dog. In addition to the pile of manure, horses produced about 2 gallons of urine a day, adding to the already disgusting mixture of the city streets. In London and New York, this translated to millions of pounds of manure dumped into the city every day. It would take an army to clear out the mess of a single day’s manure production, and no city had prepared for such a war.
Now a hundred years before the Great Horse Manure Crisis, the problem of horse feces was annoying but not overwhelmingly detrimental to a city. But by the 19th Century, London had a population of 4.5 million, threatening to burst out of the city. New York’s nearly 9 million crowded the coastal city. At the time, modern plumbing was just coming into being, and sewers were not yet a standard in city planning.
These factors led to the onset of the crisis because, quite simply, horse manure had nowhere to go. Aside from that, horses were used to pull the carts that removed the waste in the first place! So it became a vicious cycle, one that horse manure appeared to be winning.
The trouble with horse manure was not just its smelly disposition or the mess. No, it was the single fact that with horse manure (or any feces) come flies and vermin, and with flies and vermin come disease. In large cities of the 18th Century, typhoid, malaria, plague, and cholera spread on the wings of flies. Outbreaks were massive, with hundreds of thousands dying from the poor sanitation and conditions of the city.
The manure problem grew to such massive proportions that city governments began to step in. However, despite the efforts of city planners of New York (and other major cities,) the problem remained overwhelming and unsolved. By 1894, the year the crisis received its name, the London Times declared that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
It appeared that major metropolises had no hope for the manure problem. And yet, the world is not buried under nine feet of horse manure and never was. So what solved the problem? Well, it is better to ask who solved the problem. His name was Henry Ford, and he invented a contraption called the automobile.
One of Ford’s most touted lines goes something like this: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Now, the jury is out on whether Ford actually said this, but the line does keep with the spirit of his invention. The automobile rocked the world, making long-distance travel faster and easier. The automobile removed horses from the equation.
At first, cars were far too expensive for the average person to afford in New York or any major city. But, Ford also invented the assembly line, making his vehicles cheaper and producing faster to fill the burgeoning need of his customers. So, cars grew in popularity, and the use of horse-drawn carriages, buses, and cabs waned.
Within fifty years, Ford’s automobiles and those of his competitors dominated the city streets of New York and London. Horses became a novelty and thing for small towns, farms, and race tracks. And the Great Manure Crisis of 1894? It faded into history, becoming an adage for moments when an insurmountable problem suddenly resolves due to unexpected circumstances.
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