Horse in the City

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Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr. The Horse in The City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2011. pp. 280. $30.00. Paper: ISBN 142140043X

Summary

The Horse in the City explains a symbiotic and complex relationship between horse and man reaching its apex in the late nineteenth century. Authors McShane and Tarr explain how horse culture foreshadowed the complex social, economic and political issues of the early modern city. Horses were seen as living creatures and also as machines to do heavy and repetitive tasks. As cities urbanized and national markets were created the horse became a commodity in and of itself, while wagons played a major role delivering goods and services to urban and rural consumers in an expanding retail marketplace. Also linking to new patterns of consumption, horse drawn transit created the earliest streetcar suburbs. The horse required an extensive infrastructure in stables and services as well as health and nutrition services, each of these is the subject of a chapter linking the living machine to its attendant needs. The Horse in the City draws many parallels between well known urban reforms, such as sanitation, reform legislation, unionization and municipal control. Issues of class appear as wealthy Americans used the horse and buggy to display their status in places like New York’s Central Park. The last section suggests how quickly an entire sector of the economy was dissolved being replaced by the automobile and its attendant infrastructure. Historians are reminded how common place the horse was and how complicated mans relationship with it became when large numbers of horse went to work in the industrial city.

Commentary

Alan S. Brody Part of the series Animal, History, Culture The Horse in the City is a work of social history that sets out to explain how horsepower literally and figuratively drove the city, producing profit and working in almost every occupation and trade. The authors arguments emanate from the position that, “the horse was a flexible, evolving technology and, likes its accomplice, the steam engine, was crucial to the evolution of the modern city.” (14) The subtitle ‘living machine’ explains the authors desire to reveal how horses were both servants and served. This complexity or duality is crucial to keep in mind when looking at the nineteenth century urban landscape. Many historians have argued that cultural tensions arising during this time were the result of having to confront new technology and complexities and in this case the horse is no exception.

Horses became a commodity and their values fluctuated as impersonal exchanges replaced the rural system of buying stock from friends or neighbors. This was problematic because these were living animal and because a huge secondary market existed as animals went from heavy to light uses, often ending us as taxi pullers. Horse manure had some value and dead animals were fully recycled. Horses need care and by 1890 there were 368,000 teamsters in the United States. (31) While teamsters were never seen as skilled workers, they place a large role in establishing one of America’s most powerful unions. Beyond the unions, taxis and others needed to be regulated while anti-cruelty legislation had to be invented. Clearly, reform efforts were at work, however, there is ample room for additional study in this area. Who were the non-elite reformers? How did they disparate groups join forces to pass legislation? What was the impact beyond the city? Did organizations like the ASPCA spring from grassroots or top down?

Using New York, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago and some Canadian examples, the authors have a very strong chapter showing how horses used in urban transit allowed people to more easily negotiate the urban environment. The omnibuses and horsecar lines grew like a spoke and wheel while ensuring that individual entrepreneurs became wealthy operators while machine politics ruled the streets and gave out franchises. As noted, “the separation of residence and workplace was a major development of the second half of the nineteenth century.”(75) This was a boon to the middle class workers, however, Blacks and others were forced to endure Jim Crow practices including segregated cars, this is also an area for fertile exploration. While the authors source court cases and secondary works it is a retelling more than an analysis of these events. A focus on the horse means that some social history content gets short shrift, however, this is made up for by the discussion on early segregation patterns and a reminder that the horsecar was a form of technology first and one that had social implications as a secondary order effect. The middle of the book closes with a consideration of how racetracks and social status were reflected in activities like elite carriage driving, racing, sleighing and access to resorts. While short, the chapter The Horse and Leisure reminds us of the way that many groups used the horse in the urban environment for different recreational purposes.

The last section looks at the built environment, nutrition and health, relying heavily on newspaper and magazine accounts as well as trade journals and city directories. The strongest chapter is Stables and the Built Environment, which could easily become a monograph, as any9one who has flipped the pages of a reproduction Sears catalog knows, there were thousands of horse related items in the nineteenth century. What is less well known are the ways that companies and others had to design, build, organize, staff and develop a network of stables for their animals. Despite nostalgia or re-purposed carriage house, stables were once one of the most common sights on city streets (125). In some cases, stables were near tenements or horses boarded in backyards across the city and thus ripe for reform. Having a clean stable lead to good equine health and nutrition also contributed to how long and how well horses did in the city environment. One leading factor was that the railroad was able to being hay and feed from far off places to the city to feed horses. Obviously, the growth of veterinary medicine professionalized as did other disciplines, with a solid connection to the treatment of horses as a recognized specialty.

The Horse in The City concludes with the startling rapidity by which the horse essentially disappeared and was replaced by the trolley, cable car and eventually the nascent truck. As the city grew, the need for larger volume and more capacity made the horse drawn wagon obsolete. McShane and Tarr see the horse as a fading technology, albeit a living and essential one, and arguably so ubiquitous that its value has been overlooked by historians. While that argument is appealing, even more so is the proposition that, “as the horse shaped the nineteenth-century city so motor vehicles created the twentieth-century city. (179) This work has an important place to play in the historiography of the city as it reminds us to look at the built environment for all manner of horse infrastructure, it challenges us to think about the predecessor of many urban issues as arising from horse power and lastly, it challenges the primacy notion of the automobile in the growth of the city. For the social historian, there are many opportunities presented in this work, especially in trying to recover how ordinary and working people fared when the horse began its rapid disappearance. The Horse and City unpacks what is often a romanticized notion of the horse and replaces it with important linkages to the urban environment.

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