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  • The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century
  • Ann N. Greene (bio)
The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. By Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Pp. xi+242. $50.

Historians often state that industrialization eliminated the use of animal power, and they have often used the replacement of work animals to gauge a society's technological progress. Clay McShane and Joel Tarr set this paradigm on its head by showing that horses occupied an essential niche in the industrial ecology of the nineteenth-century American city. They argue that the nineteenth century was the "golden age of the horse" (p. 17). Nowhere was this more true than the city, with which horses are least associated in popular culture but in which horses were indispensable sources of power. As horses moved goods and people around the city, and powered construction and shipping, they shaped its economy, ecology, built environment, culture, and social relations. In turn, the urban demand for animate power reshaped the horse population.

During the nineteenth century, many Americans saw horses as "living machines subject to technical refinement" (p. 2). Horse technology was dynamic; it produced improved horseshoes and modes of harness, better nutrition and care, vehicles with less friction, and pavements with more traction. It also produced different horses, as breeders increased the size and variety of American workhorses to meet the specialized demands of the urban economy.

Urban horses were valuable not only for their power but also for their manure, which was sold as fertilizer, and even for their dead bodies, which were rendered for hair, hides, bone, hooves, meat, fat, and chemicals.Horses were also important urban consumers. The urban economy included manufacturers of goods for horses, owners of stables, and an extensive horse services industry. This horse economy was not separate from the urban economy—indeed, to a great extent it was the urban economy. [End Page 462]

There were many ramifications of having dense resident populations of horses and using horses as machines. Controlling equine behavior meant first controlling human drivers. Traffic regulations were rarely enforced, but starting in the 1870s humane societies began monitoring the behavior of teamsters and horsecar drivers (though not the drivers of upper-class carriages or their owners) for cruelty and recklessness. Stables were noisy and posed the risk of fire and disease. Trade regulation and commodification changed urban grain and hay markets. Owners of freighting and street-railway companies rationalized their operations around the characteristics of horses. They put equine workers on different schedules than their human workers to prevent excessive fatigue, they constructed state-of-the-art stables, they sought out the latest information on nutrition and shoeing, and they arranged to have veterinarians provide regular medical care.

One of McShane and Tarr's best chapters addresses horse-powered mass transit as "a path-breaking technology, setting in motion far-reaching changes in urban spatial structure" (p. 83).Horse railways altered the use of streets, sorted space into specialized categories, and facilitated suburban development. As new public spaces that brought people of different groups into close contact, horsecars "focused and exacerbated the tensions latent to the city" (p. 82).

By the end of the century, public health officials were decrying the pollution that horses created. Meanwhile, as traffic congestion highlighted horses' animal nature and unpredictable behavior, they were viewed as potentially dangerous. Yet despite the rapidity with which Americans took up the automobile, the use of horses in urban settings declined slowly. Although horses disappeared rapidly from mass transit as street railways electrified during the 1890s, and from private urban and suburban transportation, they remained essential to urban freighting and delivery for decades.

The Horse in the City presents a rich and complex picture of nineteenth-century urban life. (The Chicago Stockyards, for example, employed nine horse barbers!) McShane and Tarr have given us a book that is simultaneously an urban social history, a social history of a technology, and an environmental history. It adds to our knowledge of urban development and, more broadly, shows the importance of understanding how the industrialization of horses and other organisms affected the direction...


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pp. 462-463
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