It’s hard to imagine what the streets of New York were like when horses were the primary way things and people moved. The following  excerpt from “The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City” provides some perspective.

The Horse & the Urban Environment

While the nineteenth century American city faced many forms of environmental pollution, none was as all encompassing as that produced by the horse. The most severe problem was that caused by horses defecating and urinating in the streets, but dead animals and noise pollution also produced serious annoyances and even health problems. The normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty-five pounds of manure a day and about a quart of urine, usually distributed along the course of its route or deposited in the stable. While cities made sporadic attempts to keep the streets clean, the manure was everywhere, along the roadway, heaped in piles or next to stables, or ground up by the traffic and blown about by the wind. […]

If the horse created many problems for the city, it was also true that urban life was extremely hard on the horse. The average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of about four years, and it was common to see drivers and teamsters whip and abuse their horses to spur them to pull heavy loads. Overworked and mistreated urban horses often died on the city streets.

In 1866, the Citizen’s Association Report on the Sanitary Condition of the City observed that, “The stench arising from these accumulations of filth is intolerable.”


Because of the manure on the streets, especially when rain created a quagmire, “crossing sweepers” (like those in London), appeared, to help ladies and gentlemen wade through the liquid manure. Citizens frequently complained about the “pulverized horse dung” which blew into their faces and houses and which covered the outside displays of merchants. The paving of streets accelerated the problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the dust. Writing in Appleton’s Magazine in 1908, Harold Bolce argued that most of the modern city’s sanitary and economic problems were caused by the horse. Bolce charged that each year 20,000 New Yorkers died from “maladies that fly in the dust, created mainly by horse manure.”

Although not as serious a problem as the manure, the noise created by horses’ iron shoes and the iron-tired wheels of cars and wagons on cobblestone streets was a constant annoyance. Benjamin Franklin complained in the late-eighteenth century of the “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, wagons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise” which assailed the ears of Philadelphians. Boston and New York both passed ordinances banning traffic from certain streets to protect hospitals and legislative chambers from the noise. As late as the 1890s, a Scientific American writer 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.

Tarr, Joel and Clay McShane. 1997. “The Centrality of the Horse to the Nineteenth-Century American City” in The Making of Urban America. Raymond Mohl, ed. New York: SR Publishers, 105-130.

Carriage trade

In 1883 Broadway at 42nd — known as [[Longacre Square]] in the 19th century, and now as Times Square — was far out of the city proper and sparsely populated. The name was taken from London’s center of the carriage trade, also Long Acre. The carriage trade was primary, with wain- and wheelwrights, carriage manufacturers and horse farms.

Broadway at 47th Street 1878

Broadway at 47th Street 1878

American Horse Exchange

[[William K. Vanderbilt]], when asked about his profession, called himself a horse breeder. He had so much money that he could have called himself anything he liked; what he liked was horses, and horse racing. In 1879 he opened the American Horse Exchange on Longacre Square. In its first incarnation the Exchange  extended from Broadway to Seventh Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. At its center was a huge brick building that served as the meeting place for the trading of thoroughbred horses.

american horse exchange

Horse Power

hansom cab

hansom cab

While there was some steam-driven transportation in the early 1880s, most of what moved was pulled by [[horses]]. Commercial vehicles crowded the streets, while omnibuses and cabs (and the elevated trains) transported the majority who couldn’t afford to keep their own carriages. Hansom cabs  were particularly popular (cab is a shortening of cabriolet, a specific kind of horse-drawn carriage) because they  were fast, light enough to be pulled by one horse and were quick and agile, a necessity in traffic jams.

Private Carriages

Rockaway Carriage

Rockaway Carriage

Few could afford to keep horses and carriages, and even fewer had their own stables. The Rockaway carriage was one of the more popular models in the last half of the 19th century.

The website of the Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages includes photos of most of the kinds of carriages that would have been in service in Manhattan in the 1880s.


Public Transportation

From The History of Transportation in NYC:

19th Century Transportation Modes

Cable Cars

Relevant to the novel’s storyline: New York City’s first cable car line opened in 1883 on the new [[Brooklyn Bridge]]. Cable Cars were moved by steam-driven machinery in a powerhouse, which continuously drew a loop of wire cables through a slot beneath the street. When the cable car operator wanted the car to go forward, he gripped the running cable with a special device. When he wanted to stop, he released the moving cable. Cable cars were useful on grades that were too steep for horses. But once electricity became available for trolleys, the value of steam-powered cable was limited, ending the run of cable cars in New York City in 1909.

See also: Elevated Trains and Railroads


Grand Central Depot

Grand Central Depot

One Response to Transportation

  1. Interesting and informative article, thank you for sharing with us! It’s good that today we don’t see horse manure on the streets of New York =)))

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.