The Horse in the City
© 2007 Clay McShane, Joel A. Tarr
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.
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.
- Horses at Work, Ann Norton Greene. The introduction thanks McShane and Tarr for their research assistance, so these two books may belong together, in a sense.
- Cattle: An Informal Social History, Lauri Carlson
- Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton