Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Horse in the City

The Horse in the City
© 2007 Clay McShane, Joel A. Tarr
242 pages

To the American imagination, horses are the stuff of country dreams, of farms and cowboys. This is a recent conceit, however, as for most of American history humans have shared their cities with a sizable if silent population of beautiful creatures, serving as engines of transportation and industry. They lived in herds of thousands inside the city, housed in stables that covered entire city blocks -- to say nothing of their leavings, which covered the streets. They were not thought of as pets, but tools, machines which happened to breathe. Their strength was calculated, their life's worth counted to the penny, and when electricity arrived, off they trotted into history to be forgotten. The Horse in the City is, in a word, unique; a social and economic history of how horses helped shape the American urban landscape in an age of transformation.

On the backs of horses have been mounted both commerce and war, but The Horse in the City examines equine contributions to peaceable ends alone. Transportation predominates, with horses pulling the carts and wagons that were the lifeblood of commerce, being the very means of exchange. People, too, were transported by horses, but rarely as single riders:  horses tied up at the saloon may be a staple shot of westerns, but in the city most walked or traveled in carriages, either private or in 'omnibuses'.   Omnibuses were a primitive form of public transportation, generally transporting people (slowly) between the city to a fixed point beyond comfortable walking distance. They didn't exist as networks, though after trains arrived the lines took on some semblance of greater connectivity.    Most horses pulled two-wheeled carts, not wagons; they were cheaper and made deliveries easier.  Mixed in with the social history are chapters of more scholarly importance, addressing the growth of equine breeding in the United States, the dispersal of stables in select cities, the development of veterinary  medicine, and the agricultural impact of having to feed so many horses.  Horses were the backbone of the economy, supporting a variety of industries directly, and providing the means for all others to be transacted. Their presence prompted city streets to widen; their pounding hooves influenced which materials were used in paving. Horses were not displaced by the industrial revolution; they were part of it. The first rail lines in cities were used not by steam engines, but horsecars replacing the calamitously bumpy omnibuses.When machines became prevalent on the farm, horses did the pulling -- machines and horses together displaced human labor long before machines displaced horses.   Ultimately, electricity would out-do the complementary relationship between steam and horses, but the mark of horse hooves lives on

Some exceptional history texts can nearly take a reader back into time, and this is one; so thorough are the authors that the urban world which horses created comes alive. We are there, in streets covered in horseflesh -- horses plodding along with their wares, leaving fresh material for the manure industry in their wake, horses  sometimes collapsing in the street under the burden and promptly being carried off to rendering factories, there to continue being grist for the economic mill.  Endings were not always so grisly; horses were often retired to less strenuous occupations. (Their training stuck, however:  horses employed by fire brigades retained the habit of running to their old station at the sound of a firebell, long after leaving the service!)   The grim scenery is countered with more lighthearted imagery, like the joy of sleighing season in winter.    The Horse in the City is excellent  history, with social appeal but loaded with invaluable information to research students of the period, like charts on equine food consumption.



  1. Great review. This book reminds me of the film, War Horse. The use of horses in World War I may have presaged the end of the horse as a machine, at least in most of the Western World.

  2. That is one thing destroyed by the Great War that I'm glad of....the use of horses in combat! For their beauty alone, they are of place amid such barbaric waste.

    (Though, the Poles were still using some...)

  3. ..and it wasn't just the Brits who thought that the glory days of cavalry was still before them. The Germans crossing into 'plucky'Belgium faced a hastily erected defensive screen supported by 2-3 machine guns. Confident in their greater numbers (and the prestige of their swords) they charged into battle confident of a quick victory over inferior troops. After they'd got less than half way to the Belgian positions the handful of survivors retreated out of range. They only needed to try this a few more times - with equally disastrous results - before they decided to change tactics.


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