The libertarian humorist P. J. O’Rourke says, “When you think of the good old days, think ‘dentistry.’” The greatest invention of the modern world is anesthetics. Prior to 1844, in preparation for an operation, you drank booze until you passed out–hopefully. Then the physician – “sawbones,” he was called –got started hacking away.[1]

Michael Crichton, best known for The Andromeda Strain, Congo, The Terminal Man, Sphere, and the wildly popular Jurassic Park, has written the controversial novel State of Fear, an indictment of the way information is manipulated to make it fit an already accepted view of the state of the environment. Like so many of his novels, Crichton mixes well researched facts with his fictional storyline. Long before Crichton’s fictional expose of doomsday environmentalism hit the bookstores, Joel Tarr, then a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, expelled many of the myths of a supposed pristine past by comparing the environment of yesteryear with the highly industrialized world of today.[2] He did it by rehearsing the facts. His account of the “good old days” of the horse and buggy merits repeating. 

Sanitary experts in the early part of the twentieth century agreed that the normal city horse produced between fifteen and thirty pounds of manure a day, with the average being something like twenty-two pounds. In a city like Milwaukee in 1907, for instance, with a human population of 350,000 and a horse population of 12,500, this meant 133 tons of manure a day, for a daily average of nearly three-quarters of a pound of manure for each resident.

As one can  imagine, keeping the streets clean was a major problem. Some even suggested that epidemics of cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, and typhoid were caused by “‘a combination of certain atmospheric conditions and putrefying filth,’ among which horse manure was a chief offender.”

The cost of keeping the streets clean was expensive. Some cities tried to cover the cost of street cleaning by selling the manure for fertilizer. This caused another unforseen problem since collecting manure was more profitable than collecting regular trash. Daily refuse often remained in the streets along with the leftover manure.

Streets turned into cesspools during inclement weather. Women with long skirts suffered the worst of it. Dodging street cleaners was another hazard. There was no relief during the summer when people had to endure breathing “pulverized cow dung.” Modernized roads were of little help. “The coming of paved streets accelerated this problem, as wheels and hoofs ground the sun-dried manure against the hard surfaces and amplified the amount of dust.”

The next time some one insists that we would do better by scrapping modern technology and buying horses in order to solve our pollution problem, you can paint a picture of what life was like in the streets when nearly everybody had a horse and needed a shovel.


[1] Gary North, “The Good Old Days,”
[2] Joel Tarr, “Urban Pollution—Many Long Years Ago,” American Heritage, 22:6 (October 1971).