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The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

With the pandemic, and the election, and calls to take a knee or hold up a fist in racial contrition, I hesitate to add to anyone’s anxiety by recalling an existential threat from the 19th century. We live in fragile times, and the image of mountains of horse manure piled up along our village roads might trigger a massive street riot. And with horse manure or horse biscuits or horse puckies, whichever you prefer, often the size of softballs, there would be no shortage of dung to fling. Soak one in gasoline, a fossil fuel, and you’ll have yourself a flaming Molotov biscuit.

“In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” That was the headline in the London Times in 1894. Nine feet!

One hundred twenty-six years ago is nearly two lifetimes in the rearview mirror. Then, too, life had its challenges, and if you lived in London, England- well, the horse you hired with a buggy to take you to the market was one polluting machine. It pooped as much as 35 pounds (English pounds of course) of horse biscuits each day. Even at a full trot, Edward the gilding would lift its tail and relieve his bowels, adding to all the droppings of the over 50,000 horses who called London home. Do the math, and that is some significant number of metric tons.

Beyond the challenge of crossing the street strewn with horse pucky’s,  Londoners had to hold their collective noses. Manure starts out smelling bad, and it does not improve with age. Nor does it go away with the first rain. Having been trampled on and now with water added, the growing layer of horse manure turns into a stinking green porridge even the town rats found disgusting. Occasionally they’d find an undigested kernel of grain with the protein still intact and scurry off to eat it.

Crossing the street now required boots and if you were a proper British Downton Abbey bird, it was your worse nightmare. If you were part of the basement dwellers, cleaning the bloke’s boots caked with horse manure was added to your job duties. The Earls and Dukes would slosh around chasing foxes but could not be expected to return their boots back to shinny black.

Horses will poop on the go, but they much prefer to urinate standing still. Not wishing to get their feet wet, they’ll spread their hind legs before letting loose like a properly pressurized beer tap. Because Brits measure their lager and nearly everything else in pints, each horse contributed roughly 33 pints each per day to the cobblestone, which is about 16 times the lager the average Brit drinks a day. Said another way, it would take an entire soccer team to contribute as much urine as a single horse.

Add all those pints to the green porridge, and you have an excellent habitat for flies and a host of organisms. Some of those organisms were killing people, particularly typhoid fever.

At the turn of the century, London was not the only major city to suffer the indignity of having too much horse manure. New York, then home to over 100,000 biscuit baking horses producing nearly 1700 tons of the steamy piles per day and 3,300,000 pints (nearly 500,000 gallons) of urine additive, was also growing concerned. They started asking important questions and making future predictions- dire predictions.

“In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” That was the headline in the London Times in 1894. Nine feet! That’s what the abacas came up with. Scientists calculated a growing population by all the horses needed, divided by the miles of streets, and came up with nine feet of horse puckies. That was possibly the very first use of a model to predict the future.

I can imagine a London dweller scratching his balding head, taking measure of his dwelling, and sketching out a ten-foot retaining wall to protect his front porch. The poor bloke soon grew to worry for his future and that of his children. So worried he possibly pondered life without the horse and got as far as contemplating the four-hour walk to his mother’s home versus the 50-minute trot by horse. How would the coal he used to keep his family warm get delivered? He soon gave up giving up on horses not wishing to go that far backward.

So he considered other solutions. Maybe horse pooling. A good draft-horse could possibly hold three in the back seat. Maybe building public horse potties or making the owner get out and pick up their horse biscuits and depositing them at the giant landfill at the top of the hill. Maybe they can design a horse diaper. The abacas projections considered a rising population- perhaps that should not be allowed to happen. But the idea of forced sterilizations repelled him. Besides those who bullied him in school, who do you start with?

The London citizen was not alone thinking about retaining walls, horse diapers, population control, and shivering at night. By 1894, urban planners were already a thing, and being a thing, an international conference was held in 1898 in New York to address this growing threat to humanity. Unfortunately, no solution came to mind. The idea of asking all participants to pare back the use of horses, or spend millions in taxes researching a breed of horse that does not poop, or the feasibility of designing a horse diaper, is not part of the historical record. But you can be certain that some entrepreneurial industrialist was paying attention. New York- New York!

It is not hard to imagine an ‘Andrew,’ a turn of the century business genius, getting his designers busy inventing a horse diaper. Andrew, his abacus, and his money people quickly calculated the millions, no billions, that would be made from offering a franchise horse diaper collecting and cleaning business. It would employ many thousands in good-paying ‘green’ jobs. With just a fleet of horse-drawn carts, a big pond in the country, you too could own your own horse diaper cleaning and distribution business. This would become a bigger opportunity than Coke and Pepsi combined! But others were scheming as well.

When Andrew and his gang came upon the perfect design, he flooded the newspapers with advertisements. Full-page ads telling of the coming calamity and his unique solution. The ads showed pictures of steaming streets of horse manure next to a picture of a large white diaper with patent-pending safety pins. He would use the 50-year models the urban planners came up with to keyhole every politician telling of how their support for his ‘global saving’ scheme would ensure their political power into perpetuity.

Not alone, all the other Andrew’s in the world who saw opportunity instinctively knew that to sell something new, one must either appeal to fear or greed. Human nature appears to be a bit vulnerable to those two emotions. Nearly in unison, they started their pitch with a very gloomy message. ‘The end is near… unless! They lined up politicians, scientists, and academics who spoke with great certainty about the coming calamity… if the horse diaper is not deployed before it is too late.

The conference appears to have been held in vain. The ‘Andrew’ diaper never found a market. By the early 1900s, electric trams and cars were winding their way through the horse manure streets, which were slowly growing cleaner. Disaster averted.

There is no evidence that what motivated Henry Ford and other mechanized vehicle inventors was any fear of being drowned by mountains of horse biscuits. The early advertisements appealed to the utility of the horseless carriage. No need for a barn full of hay, breaking up freezing water pails, or what to do with the mountains of horse puckies. A little fossil fuel and grandma was now just a 10-minute drive away.

Today, we have the promise of electric vehicles. Other technologies promise even greater human benefits. Yet, some still choose to ply the darker regions of our human condition by exploiting fear. Their claims of 10 or 12 years till some climate calamity ends life is starting to look like a steaming pile of horse manure. Their message of doom is growing weary.

Perhaps, in the future when allowed again to visit a farm or a fairgrounds, find a horse and gently pat it on its rump and say, “You sure beat walkin.”

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