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PORTRAIT OF AN UNHEALTHY CITY: NEW YORK IN THE 1800S
From: Columbia University by David Rosner

EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION | As New York City ascended from a small seaport to an international city in the 1800s, it underwent severe growing pains. Filth, disease and disorder ravaged the city to a degree that would horrify even the most jaded modern urban dweller. David Rosner, professor of history and co-director of the program in the History of Public Health and Medicine at the School of Public Health at Columbia University, paints a vivid portrait of a city in the throes of an ecological crisis.

New York City epitomized a city in crisis during the nineteenth century. A small city of approximately 30,000 in 1800, New York began to essentially double in size every 10 years. By the turn of the twentieth century the population had reached 4 million, almost all of whom lived either below 57th Street in Manhattan or along the border of Brooklyn--a tiny portion of the modern city's boundaries. (To enlarge the photo of the horse-drawn streetcar, click on the photo or link)

Such incredible human congestion combined with a primitive infrastructure to create ideal conditions for a dramatic increase in epidemic disease. The relatively healthful city of 1800 experienced an onslaught of infectious diseases. Cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, malaria and other mosquito- and tick-borne diseases festered. The city's mortality rate skyrocketed, and children died in large numbers. The city seemed to be coming apart.

Horse-driven infrastructure

At the turn of the nineteenth century, New York City's infrastructure relied upon disease-creating entities such as the horse. Between 100,000 and 200,000 horses lived in the city at any given time. Each one of those horses gave off 24 pounds of manure and several quarts of urine a day

The vast majority of city horses were not elegant animals who pulled carriages and lived in stables near the homes of the wealthy; most were big workhorses who did all the hauling--pulling wagons loaded with goods from the shore. Big teams of workhorses powered the city's horse-driven street trolley system. The limited range and speed of these trolleys were one reason everyone lived below 57th Street. Horses are very inefficient in terms of moving people--especially atop big, heavy trolleys. Horses get tired, hungry and thirsty. They also drop dead. The average life span of a horse in New York City in the 1860s and '70s was a meager two and a half years. They were literally worked to death.

Workhorses were poorly kept and lived in big garages within New York's "horse districts," such as in the Twenties on the East Side. Large granaries existed alongside horse garages, attracting rats and other rodents. As an added danger, rotting food within the granaries would occasionally explode, burning down the granary and perhaps the neighborhood.

In fact, New York City in the 1800s was built around supporting not only human beings but animals as well. Horses, pigs, sheep and cattle were all part of everyday city life. Pigs regularly roamed through the city in herds

Stoops, carcasses and manure blocks

Despite the presence of animals, the city had no systematic street-cleaning efforts. During winter, neighborhoods sometimes rose between two and six feet in height because of the accumulation of waste and snow. The middle-class brownstones of the 1880s provided a stoop leading to a second-floor entrance so that the residents would rise above manure--which seeped into the ground floor during a storm or with melting snow.

Horses posed an additional street-cleaning dilemma. A horse carcass can easily weigh 1,200 pounds, far beyond the lifting capabilities of a person. When a horse died, its carcass would be left to rot until it had disintegrated enough for someone to pick up the pieces. Children would play with dead horses lying on the streets.

Once the bridge was built, the city started taking waste out of Manhattan and depositing it in the farmland communities of Queens. They collected it in "manure blocks"--literally huge city blocks devoted to the collection of horse manure. City maps from the era show manure blocks very close to the water reservoir on 42nd Street,

Night soil

In addition to lacking street cleaning, the city also had no sewage system and no flush toilets. Garbage--which included both human and animal waste--was basically thrown out windows and onto city streets. Today, antique stores on Columbus Avenue in New York sell chamber pots for $300. People would use chamber pots, essentially basins, as a toilet in the middle of the night, to make a deposit of what was called "night soil." Between the hours of 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., you were supposed to bring down your night soil and deposit it in your outdoor privy, usually an overflowing heap. More often than not, however, the actual custom was to sling it out into the middle of the street from the window of your four-story walk-up

This practice led to all sorts of etiquette problems. Etiquette books told young ladies to wear parasols during the day not just to keep off the sun or the rain but also to protect them in case something was to fall from the sky. Men were supposed to wear wide-brimmed hats and walk on the outside of the curb, so that they might get splattered instead of the young lady

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