Miles per oat

What Happened on 23rd Street, NYC, 1901

“A World of a Different Color,” my review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, appears in the 30 November 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Schuessler, my editor, has also posted to Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog, about the uncanny parallels between anti-car diatribes today and anti-horse diatribes a century ago, as reported by Greene. Another tidbit from Greene’s book that might be of interest to Streetsblog readers: it was late-nineteenth-century bicycle culture that paved the way, as it were, for the displacement of horse by automobile, “by advocating an increased role for the state and national government in what had been the largely local responsibility for road funding and road building” (p. 259).

Diatribes, of course, need not be fact-based, whether they be anti-car or anti-horse. Were horses really as dangerous as cars? In his recent treatise Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt notes in passing that

in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). (p. 9)

Fearful if true! While reading Greene’s Horses at Work for my review (as well as a book on the same topic, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr), I was on the lookout for evidence to confirm or refute Vanderbilt’s statistics, which he sources to a 1992 book titled Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them.

As it happens, McShane and Tarr agree with Vanderbilt that horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous, writing that “Per vehicle, nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles caused more accidents than motor vehicles would later, an appalling accident toll, at least in New York City” (p. 54). Not all accidents are fatalities, though, so this isn’t complete vindication.* And it turns out that Greene disagrees with Vanderbilt. She writes:

Few accident statistics predate the earliest twentieth century, and much evidence is anecdotal. . . . The cited dangers of horse-driven traffic must be understood within the context of nineteenth-century traffic control, of which there was none. Cities did not institute systems of traffic police and mechanical signals until the twentieth century. . . . New York City gave right of way at intersections to north- and southbound vehicles, mandated signaling by drivers, forbade stopping and parking except in designated areas, and limited speeds to five miles per hour for business vehicles and eight miles per hour for passenger ones. Speed limits could not be enforced because there was no way to measure speed anyway. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

So maybe horses are innocent after all. Clearly there is room for further research. If you’d like to see some nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles in action, the Library of Congress offers video of traffic in New York’s Herald Square in 1896, near New York’s Dewey Arch in 1899, and on South Spring Street, Los Angeles, in 1897. On the verge of the twentieth century, there’s “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York,” in which, against a background of equine transport, a young woman has an adventure with a street grate that prefigures Marilyn Monroe (but with sturdier and more abundant undergarments). There are also two movies of traffic in New York’s Broadway in 1903, a very long film of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1905, and for good measure here’s some footage of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1900. Alas, in none of this documentary footage are the horses wilding. In the absence of any death and dismemberment, I found myself noticing that New York City streets seemed much more expansive then that now. It took a moment for me to figure out why, but then it came to me: there wasn’t any curbside parking. You can pause a horse at the side of the street while you make a delivery, but you can’t leave it in harness unattended for any serious length of time. It’s a living animal. So here’s an easy proposal for returning spaciousness to New York’s streets: restrict parking to stables.

* UPDATE (Dec. 2): In a comment added below, author Clay McShane has written in to say that the accident statistics in his and Joel Tarr’s book are in fact for fatalities, not merely casualties, and that the major issues are kicking and biting.

19 thoughts on “Miles per oat”

  1. Considering the images of vehicular disaster that pervade early cinema, one gets the impression that the fin-de-siècle streets were pretty scary. The film historian Ben Singer has written a bit about this, noting that "by far the dominant dystopic motif around the turn of the century highlighted the terrors of big-city traffic, particularly with respect to the hazards of the electric trolley. A plethora of images representing streams of injured pedestrians, piles of 'massacred innocents,' and perennially gleeful death figures focused on the new dangers of the technologized urban environment." He goes on to add a few choice lines from a period rag:

    "The merciless trolley car has added another victim to its list of massacred innocents and still runs on unchecked. Thousands of citizens have protested and a united press has assailed the pitiless trolley monopoly without result. The slaughter still goes on. What will Brooklyn do about it?"

    Also, on a slightly different note, the artist Ernie Gehr does wonders with that Market Street footage in his film Eureka (1974).

  2. It's difficult to make accurate comparisons between horse-related fatalities in the 19th Century and auto-related fatalities now, if only because of the changes in accident response and triage methods, as well as the changes in vehicles. If you fell off your horse onto a city pavement in 1867 and split your head open, the helpful bystanders might have crippled or killed you by gathering you up into a horse-drawn ambulance for a jolting ride to a doctor, and a dangerous climb up the stairs into the clinic, where you might get have gotten opium for your pain but no antibiotics for an open wound. And, although an auto crash at 40 miles per hour doubtless results in more traumatic forces than a carriage crash at 15 miles per hour (a galloping speed), carriages had no "crumple zones" nor any means of keeping you in your seat if it hit something. The truth probably lies somewhere between Vanderbilt and Greene.

  3. Because NYC is so much less car dependent than other American cities, it is not quite fair to horses to compare horse fatalities to NYC car deaths today; since NYC car deaths are lower than in more car dependent cities, such a comparison will make cars look safe relative to horses. Why not look at car fatalities nationwide or for a more car dependent city like Houston?

  4. Family lore tells that my g.g. uncle, a doctor by trade, was run over by a horse and carriage in New York City. He survived for several weeks after the accident by pure grit and copious amounts of alcohol which he prescribed for himself during prohibition, but eventually succumbed to his injuries.

  5. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

    That's actually funny because the author clearly (at least from that passage) doesn't get it. You're rarely going to get significant injury issues from low-impact collisions like that, so that's not the issue though the author tries to conflate it to the issue.

    The danger of horses is getting kicked by a spooked horse. For example, apparently the Prussians used to keep stats on "kicked to death by a horse" statistics on their cavalry. It was, apparently, around 122 Cavalrymen were killed by horses kicking a year.

    Then we have tetanus deaths… Lots of horses carry tetanus in their gut and it is passed through their feces. Tetanus, from horse feces, was a big killer in those days.

    Anyway, horses are dangerous when the spook. They will strike out. They can crush your skull, cave in your ribs and rupture your internal organs. Even if the initial "collision" was at 2mph.

  6. Ummm, I'd think that quality of medical care (and antibiotics) is a huge variable in all of this. That is, even less serious injuries far more frequently led to death in that era. Any infection certainly brought with it that risk.

  7. My grandfather owned a livery stable in Ireland. He was kicked in the head by a horse. He survived, but he never worked again.

  8. The danger of horses is getting kicked by a spooked horse.

    That's too limited. There were also a *lot* of injuries from falling off horses and from being stepped on by horses.

    has anyone done any sort of analysis of plot-changing horse-related accidents in 19c fiction?
    There are a *huge* number. Jane Eyre meets Mr. Rochester in a horse accident. Black Beauty is an entire book about horse-related accidents. I'm pretty sure there's one in The Pickwick Papers, and almost certainly others later in Dickens. Vanity Fair is another book where I'm pretty sure there's a horse accident, but I can't remember where.

  9. In Barcelona, the streets were designed with beveled corners to allow greater visibility of on-coming horse-carriages. My understanding is that this was a response to the fact that it takes a while to stop a horse-drawn carriage and thus avoid collisions.

  10. In re "plot-changing horse-related accidents," we would be remiss in forgetting Tess Durbeyfield's misadventure with her father's old horse, the guilt over which lays her susceptible to her mother's scheme to get her a position with Mrs. d'Urberville and leads her straight into the arms of the libertine Alec d'Urberville.

  11. On a lighter literary level, the coach accident is a classic trope in Regency romances. The passengers are seldom seriously harmed, but are forced to take shelter at a strange house or inn, or are overtaken by the angry true lover in pursuit of the runaway or kidnapped bride.

    Also, "between Vanderbilt and Greene," where the truth may lie, is nearly a location in Brooklyn — if only the preposition were "at," as the two intersect in Ft. Greene.

  12. Those Barcelona blocks with the corners cut are "chamfered", actually, not beveled. Makes for pleasantly inefficient walking.

  13. The data in our book on accidents is from the New York City Board of Health Annual Reports and refer to fatalities. Kicking and biting were the major issues, although carriages turning over when a horse ran away sometimes occur. It was very uncommon for horses to move faster than a trot on city streets (see the film clips noted earlier), although they sometimes did on suburban boulevards or parkways. Still runaway horses sometimes caused accidents. The data always attributed the accident to the larger of the two moving objects. so, if a drunken pedestrian stepped in front of a moving wagon–the accident was attributed to the horse

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