Everyone sees cars as the bad guys when it comes to air and noise pollution but society has forgotten that back in the early 1900's cars were considered the logical greener alternative to the horse and carriage. Back then the horse was to blame for the same problems we give cars: harmful air pollution, noxious odours and noise.
Back in the old days cities employed street-sweepers, no their job wasn't to pick up bits of paper (well they did also do that), their real job was to get rid of all the horse poo. European cities had shown concern for the problem as early as the fourteenth century. Across the world by 1900 almost all cities over thirty thousand in population employed street-cleaners.
Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure a day, with the average being something like twenty-two pounds, not to mention the barrels of urine. A city like Sydney in 1901 had a population of 488,000 people, its horse population was around 15,000 horses. If a year of manure form these horses was stacked in a pile all at once, it would make a mountain with a base of one acre and a summit over 170 feet high. A mountain of poo breeding about sixteen billion flies, each one a potential spreader of disease.
Cities made their most sustained efforts to clean the streets under the fear induced by epidemics of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, or typhoid. Many medical authorities believed that such diseases were caused by “a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth”, among which horse manure was a chief offender.
Urban sanitation departments of the time were notoriously inefficient, they were staffed by “old and indigent men”, “prisoners who don’t like to work,” and “persons on relief.” So it's not surprising to discover that newspapers and governmental reports abound with complaints about problems created by horse manure left in the streets. Unattended piles of manure bred huge numbers of flies and created “pestilential vapours”. Piles were sometimes carried from wealthy residential neighbourhoods and dumped in poor neighbourhoods, where it remained. During the rain streets turned into sewers. In London, ladies and gentlemen were aided in their navigation through the sea of horse droppings by “crossing-sweepers”. Dry weather was no great improvement, for then there were complaints of the “pulverised horse dung” that blew into people’s faces and the windows of their homes, and over the outdoor displays of merchants’ wares. The coming of paved streets accelerated this problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the sun-dried manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the amount of dust.
Public health officials in various cities charged that windblown dust from ground-up manure damaged eyes and irritated respiratory organs. Also blamed on the horse were such familiar plagues as cholera and typhoid fever and intestinal diseases like dysentery and infant diarrhoea, transmitted by the housefly whose favourite breeding place was the manure heap. In the late 1890’s insurance companies discovered that stable employees and those living near stables had a higher rate of infectious diseases, such as typhoid fever, than the general public. Additionally, city horses were notoriously overworked. The average street nag had a life expectancy of barely two years and it was common for dead horse corpses to be discarded in the streets adding to the threat of disease.
And then there was the noise, that clip-clop may seem quaint when you hear it go past your house once in a blue moon but at the beginning of the 20th century it was a deafening clatter. Early paving consisted largely of cobblestones, on which the clopping and clanking of horses’ iron shoes and the iron-tired wheels of carts and wagons created an immense din. In the 1890’s a writer in Scientific American noted that the sounds of traffic on busy New York streets made conversation nearly impossible, while the author William Dean Howells complained that “the sharp clatter of the horses’ iron shoes” on the pavement tormented his ear. Heath officials believed, then as now, that the “noise and clatter” of city traffic aggravated nervous diseases.
With the gradual commercialisation of the horseless carriage articles began to appear in newspapers and journals weighing the merits of the automotive against the horse. Articles compared the cost of keeping horses against the cost of a horseless carriage that was immune to fatigue and to weather. Other articles pointed out the advantages the motor truck had over the horse in hauling freight in speed, "doing an average of two and a half times as much work in the same time as the horse and with one-quarter the amount of street congestion".
So next time you complain about how car fumes are affecting you health and the noise is hurting your ears, just remember the alternative is an even noisier, slow moving, expensive beast of burden that stinks and craps disease in the streets.