Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney about 1904
 (Photo also used in last week's post.  Click on photo to enlarge).

The following article is lengthy but presents some interesting comments and observations, made all the more topical by the Government’s proposed carbon tax.

The Great Horse manure Crisis of 1894

The urban equine:

As readers will be aware from the previous post about block boys, aka sparrow starvers, the lads who who were employed by local councils in Sydney and suburbs to clean the streets of horse manure.  You can see a sparrow starver in the pic above, on the right on the kerb edge, white shirt and dark pants.

Until the advent of motor vehicles, the main form of transportation, whether of people or goods, was by horse.  By 1880 the horse population had reached problem levels.  The cities functioned on horse power, literally.  London (then the largest city in the world) in 1900 had 11,000 cabs, all drawn by horses.  There were also several thousand buses, each needing 12 horses per day.  There were also various carts, drays, wagons and buggies for the transportation of goods and persons.


Reliance upon equine transportation produced unpleasant consequences in respect: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents.  The main problem, however, was manure.  A horse produces between 7 and 15 kilos of manure daily.  In New York in 1900, the population of 100,000 horses produced nearly 1,200 metric tons of horse manure per day, which all had to be swept up and disposed of. In addition, each horse produces nearly a litre of urine per day, which also ended up on the streets.

The problems:

Consider the following:
·         The manure spread disease.
·         It attracted large numbers of flies.
·         In the summer, it dried and turned to dust, being blown by the wind onto people and ciating buildings.
·         In wet weather it turned into mire.
·         The manure smelled offensive.
·         In some places the manure was so thick on the ground that professional manure removers at intersections – including “crossing sweepers” in the US and “sparrow starvers” in Sydney –  provided a paid service of clearing paths for women in long dresses to cross the street.
·         Horse accidents were common.  Fatality rates according to population were higher for horse drawn vehicles than in today’s motor vehicle society.
·         Horseshoes on stone were noisy.
·         Congestion was commonplace.
·         Dead horses were difficult to move and were sometimes allowed to lie in the street to putrefy so as to make sawing up and disposal easier.
·         Cruelty to horses was common.  It was considered better economics to work a small number of horses intensively than to have larger number and work them humanely, even if it meant that the harder-worked horses expired quicker.  In 1880 New York removed on average 41 dead horses from the streets per day.  Beatings and whippings were common.
·         Horses were also at risk of falling on slippery roads, especially when wet or icy, with the consequent risk of a broken leg and destruction.

Made worse by:

The manure problem was worsened by the following:
·         Horses had to be stabled, with otherwise valuable land and buildings used for this purpose. 
·         Horses had to be fed.
·         As the cities grew in population and size, more horses were needed.
·         Greater numbers of horses required greater areas for stabling.
·         Greater numbers of horses also had greater need for food, brought into the cities by… horses.
·         Increasing land devoted to growing hay meant that there was less land available for growing food for the human population.
·         Increasing numbers of horses in cities increased health risks.
·         By the turn of the century, the bottom had fallen out of the manure market.  Whereas previously farmers had paid stable owners for the manure to use as fertiliser, by 1900 it was so plentiful that the stable owners had to pay the farmers to take it away.  In summer, the farmers found it difficult to leave their crops to collect manure.  City officials and residents began to pile the manure on vacant lots in the US cities, with some lots having manure mountains up to 20m high.

The city of New York is a good illustration of increasing reliance on horse transport and increasing numbers:

·         The population of the US increased by 30m people between 1800 and 1900.
·         Although populations expanded laterally, that is by forming new cities, population densities of existing cities also increased.  New York’s population density rose from 39,183 per square mile in 1800 to 90,366 per square mile in 1900.
·         Rises in living standards meant availability and consumption of more goods, products and amenities, which in turn necessitated more horse drawn transport.  In 10 major US cities, the equine population rose by 328%, whereas the population increased by 105%.

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894:

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.

It seemed that The End of Civilisation As We Know It would be brought about, not by a meteor strike, global sickness or warfare, but by an excess of manure, by the urban equine.

Steven Davies, a senior lecturer in history at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, has written about this crisis and drawn some lessons from it, referring to it as the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, the name it is known by in internet discussions.

Some interim measures:

Problems with horse drawn transport were not new.  Julius Caesar had banned the presence of horse drawn carts from Rome between dawn and dusk in an effort  to curb gridlock, noise, accidents, and the other unpleasant  byproducts of equine transport.

In 1866 Henry Bergh founded the ASPCA, mainly to improve the lot of horses in the cities.

At the turn of the 20th century, William Phelps Eno was responsible for:
·         inventing road rules to reduce the number of accidents caused by horse-drawn vehicles;
·         devising the stop sign, the stop light, the yield sign, the crosswalk, the pedestrian island, the one-way street, the traffic circle, and the taxi stand.
·         Codifying driving on one side of the road.

These interim measures were not enough to solve the problem.

The 1898 conference:

In 1898 the first international urban planning conference convened in New York.  One topic dominated discussion:  manure.  Cities all over the world, including Sydney, were experiencing the same problem.  Unable to see any solution to the manure crisis, the delegates abandoned the conference after three days instead of the scheduled ten days.

The problem solved:

Then, quite quickly, the crisis passed as millions of horses were replaced by millions of motor vehicles.

The change did not happen immediately, rather it happened function by function, with freight haulage being the last.  Motorised haulage did not take over from horse drawn haulage in the US until the 1920’s.

Cars were cheaper to own and operate than horse-drawn vehicles, both for the individual and for society. In 1900, 4,192 cars were sold in the US; by 1912 that number had risen to 356,000. In 1912, traffic counts in New York showed more cars than horses for the first time.

And the moral of the story is?

That is a matter for dispute:

·         Davies points out that there have been similar predictions as the manure crisis in respect of oil prices and the reliance upon oil products.

Davies says:

“What this misses is that in a competitive market economy, as any resource becomes more costly, human ingenuity will find alternatives.

We should draw two lessons from this. First, human beings, left to their own devices, will usually find solutions to problems, but only if they are allowed to; that is, if they have economic institutions, such as property rights and free exchange, that create the right incentives and give them the freedom to respond. If these are absent or are replaced by political mechanisms, problems will not be solved.

Second, the sheer difficulty of predicting the future, and in particular of foreseeing the outcome of human creativity, is yet another reason for rejecting the planning or controlling of people’s choices. Above all, we should reject the currently fashionable “precautionary principle,” which would forbid the use of any technology until proved absolutely harmless.

Left to themselves, our grandparents solved the great horse-manure problem. If things had been left to the urban planners, they would almost certainly have turned out worse.”

·         In the modern day, there are doomsayers who take current trends and extrapolate them into the future as means of predicting ultimate ruination.

Sometimes such messages are accompanied by the suggestion that we have the means of averting doom if we change our ways, often at the cost of personal liberty.

Take your pick:
o   global warming;
o   pollution;
o   greenhouse gases;
o   population increase;
o   nuclear weapons proliferation;
o   increasing world tensions;
o   diminishing fish stocks in the oceans.

        According to Davies:
“The fundamental problem with most predictions of this kind, and particularly the gloomy ones, is that they make a critical, false assumption: that things will go on as they are. This assumption in turn comes from overlooking one of the basic insights of economics: that people respond to incentives.  In a system of free exchange, people receive all kinds of signals that lead them to solve problems.”
This has been adopted by quite a number of supporters and commentators.
·         The problem with Davies’ view is that it can be used as a justification for inertia:  do nothing because something or someone will come along and solve it.

In discussing this topic with my wife, she made the pertinent observation that even the doomsayers perform a valuable function, by presenting the problems for consideration by and alerting people to them.

She also pointed out that sometimes the very fact of doomsaying is enough to result in change, especially when there is no magic bullet that may or may not happen.

·         Furthermore, the automobile was not intentionally invented to alleviate the horse manure crisis.

What would have happened had the automobile not been invented, or if the technology had not been practical, or it had been too expensive to mass produce?

According to one commentator who does not agree with Davies’ philosophy:

Necessity may well be the mother of invention but counting on providence to resolve pressing issues is not a prudent way to run a nation much less a business. He needs to take a course on Cost/Benefit analysis because his “que sera sera” attitude may work when applied to philosophy or watching brain tripe like “Pollyanna” but fails miserably when applied to economics and science.”

That writer uses as examples:
o   Had not doomsayers protested at whaling practices, the whales would probably be extinct by now.
o   Had not doomsayers pointed out the consequences of China’s increasing population and its possible effects, resulting in drastic government restrictions, China’s population would today be such that it would be in a very large mess.

“For every case of failed warnings there are as many if not more cases of unheeded warnings leading to disaster. Churchill warned Baldwin and Chamberlin that Hitler was a schmuck and they called him a war monger. The French were told New Orleans was a death trap when they built it below sea level 300 years ago and it took that long for a large enough hurricane to turn it into an aquarium. Until 2005 the doomsayers were wrong and suddenly they were right. Rather than learn not to build a city in a punch bowl they’re rebuilding it. Brilliant.
       “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

The fact is that a significant portion of planning a business has to do with forecasting the future. Do I cut back on toppings and the quality of cheese on the pizzas I make in an effort to cut production costs and will that offset lost revenues when customers stop coming? Do I keep offering 0% financing on cars purchased from my dealerships or do I raise it to 5%. Can I offset the potential loss of customers with an increase in the number of extras such as a DVD player, side airbags, roadside service, and repair packages and does this justify the cost?

Discarding the sciences of statistics, economic forecasting, and cost/benefit analysis in favor of the hope that Icarus will show up and invent wings as necessary is entirely imprudent and impractical even if it does rid of us a few annoying doomsayers and busy bodies.

So what is your view?  That oftentimes things will change because of the necessity to change, that some development will solve the problem?  That such an approach cannot be relied upon and that we must take responsibility for change?  That it is not in our hands in any event? That we rise to meet crises as and when they happen?

Don’t ask me for the answers.  As I have said in the past, I’m just posing the questions.


  1. Is there any reason why the manure couldn't be compressed into fuel bricks for cooking and heating?

  2. I would imagine that apart from gas and electricity taking over, there would still be problems with hygiene, health, factoris required for production, distribution, efficiency etc

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  7. I wouldn't mind seeing references.

  8. I usually don't include references, preferring to keep the items entertaining, rather than scholarly. Footnoting interrupts the flow and simplicity of the posts. However, googling horse manure crisis 1894 will provide numerous sources and references.

  9. The French quarter was built on high ground. It was also built on thousands of feet of organic matter and soil which slowly sinks.

  10. I do not believe that doomsayers had anything to do with the survival of whales. Whales survived because drilled wells produced oil which was refined into kerosene which produced better cheaper light than whale oil. Rockefeller became super rich selling Standard Oil which had the gasoline extracted so explosions did not occur.

    Trolleys, subways, electrified trolleys and subways, began to ease the horse problem as population density increased.

  11. you statement that motor vehicles where not invented to "solve" the manure problem is nonsense on stilts ... it was invented because it solved multiple problems with horse "powered" transportation ... manure was only one of the problems being solved ... if motor vehicles had not been invented then cities would have stopped growing ... to assume that cities would have continued to grow is simply to ignore incentives ...

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  13. The commentator who does not agree with Davies’ philosophy doesn't seem to understand Davies' point but goes ahead and makes an irrelevant argument anyway. If anything all he does is present a subset of Davies' argument which stands in my opinion. Who plans their business by guessing the future.. it seems this guy is the one flying to close to the sun..

  14. The electric tram was the solution in more dense areas which cut into the need for horses. A more rational approach would not have called for the destruction of urban street railway transport. What are the fatality rates from equine transport?

  15. The old adage..."Necessity is the mother of invention" applies here! Many times, what appears to be a dooms day crisis, is simply the labor pains of innovation!

  16. While horse manure was a problem, there was no failed 1898 conference and no Times prediction. America’s First National Conference on City Planning was in Washington, DC, in 1909. Britain’s first urban planning conference was the Town Planning Conference, held in London in October, 1910.

    “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894” was invented by Stephen Davies to argue against regulation in Sept, 2004. He invents an 1898 conference, with no name, no dates, and no known attendees, and no citation. It didn’t happen. Search on Google prior to Sep 2004 and you cannot find any predictions of streets buried in manure. The Times prediction didn’t happen, either. Horse manure was a problem, but these myths should not be used to argue against proper planning and management of resources as Davies does.

    1. Maybe YOU better do your homework.

    2. I have no argument with the fact that horse manure was a problem. I have an issue with a fictional crisis, fictional conference, and fictional Times quote. The link provided mentions none of those.

      Here is a link to the proceedings of the First National Conference on City Planning, May 21-22, 1909:

      Here is a link to the Transactions of the Town Planning Conference, held October 10-15, 1910:

      If anyone can provide a link to the proceedings of the 1898 conference I'll be happy to agree that it occurred and that I am wrong. Currently, the conference has no name, no dates, no known attendees, and no records. Nor does any reference to it, the "crisis", or the Times quote appear online prior to Sep 2004.

    3. 3 months and nobody can find the proceedings for the 1898 conference? Why it's almost like it never happened.

  17. Water people of the world listen up. The # one carbon trap is phytoplankton. It converts it to sugar and oxygen with the help of sunlight and supplies most of the world's oxygen and is the beginning of the food cycle. Once sequestered the carbon along with its host sinks to the bottom of the sea where it resides until the oil men take it when it becomes energy for our power plants, factories, and cars thus releasing that carbon back into our atmosphere causing global warming. It also becomes plastic and PCBs. NOW the oceans are overwhelmed with plastic and as it decomposes it absorbs PCBs and phytoplankton is ingesting this PCB-laced marine microplastic and is in a 40% decline. The oceans are suffocating and fish are toxic and dying as a result. Atmospheric oxygen levels are also in decline and a few percentage point drop and no science will fix it. It is imminent and irreversible. We have one hope. We must remove every drain and pipe that is entering our water bodies TODAY, but we won't. I fought a twenty-year Federal Lawsuit to do just that and was met head on by government and industry. The CEOs are the new Chiefs of the world, they own the land, air, water, media and governments. They do not win by being brave but by being greedy.

  18. This story has a life of its own. The problem did exist, but there was no horse manure conference. Sort of like National Review's Vietnam "Pentagon Papers" of 1971; yes, they were a hoax, but they represented actual views, and some of the purported authors actually said they thought they HAD written some of the memos. A Classic case of an actual Dan Rather-style "Fake But Accurate" report.