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  • The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century
  • Bruce Laurie
The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. By Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. xi plus 242).

This collaboration of two urban historians promises to provide a wide-angle perspective on the role of the horse in the development of the nineteenth-century [End Page 819] city. It delivers on its promise for the most part. Clay McShane and Joel Tarr take the reader from the market for horses to efforts to regulate their care and use through the rise of the street railway (a main source of horse usage) and then to such topics as stable location, horse nutrition, and equine health. The authors press the two related themes of the treatment of the horse as a "living machine" (p. x) and the horse-drawn street railway as the force that "shaped the nineteen-century city, " just as "motor vehicles created the twentieth-century city" (p. 179).

The Horse in the City has inspired moments. The section on breeding, a surprising aspect of the history of the horse as beast of burden (if not as race horse) is interesting and engaging, as are the descriptions of changing spatial relations in the city. Urban historians will doubtless appreciate the informed discussion of the displacement of the omnibus by the horse-drawn streetcar, as well as the sophisticated analysis of economic interchange between country and city anchored by supply and demand in each locale, which together produced a wide range of innovations and spin-off enterprise in each place, including greater crop specialization and facilities for the upkeep and feeding of horses. On a related note, the authors demonstrate how the movement for better treatment of horses, sponsored by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, had the unintended effect of serving the interests of larger owners more effectively than the animals. Horses further suffered when cost-conscious owners substituted cornmeal for oats and hay, which increased "nutritionally related disease" (p. 147). Horse ailments of various kinds, in turn, stimulated veterinary science, which came up with cures for the most threatening diseases at a time when the horse was giving way to the motor car. The horse simply couldn't win and didn't.

Two shortcomings detract from an otherwise useful book. The first is a tendency to slide into presenting evidence of questionable value. Do we really need to know that in 1870 New York's "38, 272 horses produced an estimated 1,146 cartloads of manure daily?" (p. 124). Is it really surprising or important to learn that conditions in "small, private stables . . . owned by individuals . . . could vary greatly?" (p. 115). Do we really need tables and other graphics showing "Feeding Practices of Urban Stables" (p.128) or the "location of Boston stables in 1885, reflecting changes since 1867?" (p. 106). Such trivia leave the impression of quantification for its own sake and makes for a distracting read. Better editing from the authors or the press would have reduced the anecdotes and made for a more compact and stronger book.

If portions of The Horse in the City are burdened by excessive detail, its central thesis would have benefited from more detail. Thus, the authors claim that horse-drawn street railway "stimulated the evolution of the modern American city . . . characterized by a central business district, specialized residential neighborhoods, and peripheral suburbs" (p. 57). This otherwise plausible hypothesis needs evidence that would have rounded out the picture. Spatial relations in the pre-streetcar era, which may well have anticipated modern urban patterns, are not fully or properly discussed, leaving the impression that the new transport system created modernity afresh. Moreover, the lineup of interests that brought about modernity seems incomplete. It is restricted to the street railway entrepreneurs with a hint of realtors in play despite the likelihood that they were allied with building construction interests and possibly insurance companies. [End Page 820] There seems little doubt that the department store entrepreneurs were on board as well. They may have been in the lead, but Filene and Wanamaker are not mentioned, while Macy...


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