Ann N. Greene
Professor, University of Pennsylvania Department of History and Sociology of Science
Ann N. Greene teaches environmental history, technological history, nineteenth century American history and politics, the Civil War, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era through 1950. Her research interests include technological change, especially energy transitions, technology and politics, environmental history, and agricultural history. She has a B.A. from Brown University, an M. Ed. From Lehigh University and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
I’m going to talk today about the rise and fall of animal power and its critical role of animal power in American history. In 1872, an editorial in a widely-read magazine, called The Nation, expressed concern about energy dependency in the United States and how it made the country vulnerable. The magazine’s editors urged policies to protect and conserve the energy source on which Americans relied so extensively.
The source of this anxiety was a recent power outage. Let me describe how it affected Philadelphia.Picture Market Street, on Monday, November 4, 1872. Usually, a weekday meant that heavy traffic composed of drays, carts, huge brewery wagons, smaller delivery wagons of local businesses, city vehicles, omnibuses, carriages, cabs, and horse-drawn streetcars filled the thoroughfare, along with pedestrians, vendors, and workers. However, this Monday was no usual day. Philadelphia’s streets were virtually empty of traffic. A few delivery boys trundled handcarts. An ox-drawn cart plodded along, the bells on the harness swaying in a slow rhythm. A furniture wagon appeared propelled by four men, two pulling and two pushing it along the street. A newspaper reporter walked around the city and reported seeing only a few horses and one mule between one and eight pm that day. The headline on the Philadelphia Inquirer was, “The City Well Nigh Horseless”
Where was all the traffic? Philadelphia’s horses had succumbed to a virulent strain of equine influenza, known as the Great Epi-zoh-otic, which swept across the nation in 1872. This was not just a Philadelphia story: first in the cities in the Northeast, and then across the nation for six months, horses stood in their stalls, shivering, coughing, runny-eyed, and miserable. Around them, city life ground to a halt.
It was a power outage, 1870’s style. Horses provided the motive power for urban transportation, hauling, delivery, construction, and city services. With the horses too sick to work, streetcar companies suspended service, households lacked for milk, ice and groceries, saloons lacked for beer, work halted at construction sites, brickyards and factories, and undelivered freight accumulated at wharves and railroad depots. The city government curtailed services, most ominously that of fire protection because the fire horses were ill. Fire stations tried to organize teams of men to come and pull the heavy steam engines in case of a fire. Philadelphia got off lucky; during the epi-zoh-otic in Boston, a fire broke out that raged for three days, burning 776 buildings and destroying 65 acres of the central business district, in part because of a lack of fire horses to get the engines to the fire when it first broke out. Nationally, the epi-zoh-otic probably contributed to the severity of economic depression in 1872 and 1873.
As the Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “our business houses have been made to feel the important part played by the horse in the daily routine of business life”. The editorial in the Nation made the same point about American’s dependency on horses for power, citing “the importance of the part which [the horse] has come to play in our commercial civilization,” and the way that cities were “wholly dependent for their intramural travel and for their regular supplies of food and clothing on horses.”
The story of the Great Epi-zoh-otic is often surprising to people (though probably not to this audience). Its not that people don’t know that horses were used in the past; it’s that they see it as something quaint, like carriage rides at Independence Hall. They generally don’t understand that horses were a serious source of power and that during the nineteenth century, the consumption of horse power increased continually. Industrialization did not eliminate horses; it made it possible to use more horses more extensively and more intensively than ever before.
My purpose today is to first to recapture the serious nature of horse power and its centrality to the history of energy and technology. Second, it is to suggest that horse power was not simply replaced by internal combustion and electricity, but that it was a complicated transition that needs to be better understood. Third, I want to suggest that American energy attitudes are rooted in the history of horsepower. I need you to hold some ideas in mind about energy and technology.
Energy is just energy – it lies around loose so to speak. There is solar energy all around us, but we cannot get direct access to most of it. To use it we have to convert it –we burn wood, coal, or oil, we use horses that have converted the solar energy of grass into muscle. We convert this potential energy into power when we want to do something- solve problems, achieve goals. Power has purpose and direction. Humans choose to create power, and that choice comes from the values of society. A horse doesn’t have horsepower; horsepower is our idea. We give horses horsepower by using them. When we do that, we turn horses into technology, because technology is anything we use to solve problems and achieve goals. Technology is the rock we use to pound a nail, or the computer I am using today. It is all technology. Horses are domesticated animals that have been shaped for human use for over four thousand years. They are a very ancient kind of technology, but technology nonetheless.
The magnitude of horse use in the nineteenth century was historically unique.
Note: when I talk about horses, I am really talking about a combined horse and mule population – mules, or half horses, were often referred to as horses and counted as part of the horse population.
Census returns show the national horse population growing nearly 6-fold between the antebellum period and World War I. We cannot account for this increase by the growth of the human population. The growth rate of the horse population outpaced that of the human population. In 1860 there was one horse for every five humans; by 1910, there was one horse for every three humans.
Nor can we account for the increase by talking about western settlement. The census shows that the vast majority of these horses resided east of the Mississippi, in the upper Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the most industrialized portions of the nation. Until the last quarter of the century, the majority of the power that Americans consumed came from work animals, the majority of which were horses and mules. In short, a birds’-eye view of the nation in the 19th and the early 20th century would show that horses were everywhere. Horses were as ubiquitous in American society as squirrels on the Penn campus. Horses worked in cities, towns, and factories, on farms, canals, streets and roads, and around ports, forts and railroad depots.
From the colonial period on, Americans dreamed of having more energy at their command. Their goals were to increase their mobility, and to grow the economy through expanded production –goals that are clearly interrelated. This desire for mobility was part of a global transformation of capitalism, expressed in an expansive search for resources and markets. In the United States, this desire for mobility was also tied to national goals of political unification, national defense, economic development, and social integration. Americans accomplished these goals in three ways: by changing the landscape, by using combinations of complementary technologies, and through increased mechanization. All of these increased the number and use of horses.
Overland travel was costly and physically difficult. Settlement, commerce and travel were concentrated along rivers and the coast, while backcountry areas remained isolated and undeveloped. Roads were poor, badly marked, or non-existent. In a process we call The Transportation Revolution, Americans built roads, canals, and railroads. It caused the horse population to explode.
The immediate need was to create good roads for horse-drawn vehicles. A properly built horse road has a hard-packed surface that holds up under traffic and weather, provides good traction for horses yet offers little resistance to wheels. It has bridges over streams, ditches for drainage, and its grades are not too steep. They were expensive to build. Turnpikes such as the Philadelphia-Lancaster or the New York-Philadelphia were stone-surfaced and provided with bridges, and carried an enormous amount of freight. These turnpikes put thousands of horses on the roads in thick streams of wagon traffic. These roads expanded local markets and businesses to supply the needs of horses, drivers and passengers.
Improved roads caused the proliferation of stagecoach routes. At ten miles an hour stagecoach was by far the fastest form of overland transportation available. By the 1820s large stagecoach companies owned hundreds of horses and operated extensive networks of stagecoach stops that allowed them to run “nonstop” coaches between major cities. The Eastern Stage Company of Boston owned more than 500 horses alone. The Post Office Department subsidized many stagecoach lines through contracts to carry mail and newspapers, and became the de facto regulator of stagecoach travel and road conditions. Horse-drawn stagecoaches were central to the communications network of antebellum America.
The expansion of road transportation stimulated horse-related businesses because horses were great consumers of products–think about all the things needed when you are using horses. One example is the Abbot-Downing Company, of Concord, New Hampshire. This was a highly industrialized operation producing coaches and wagons that were marketed nationally and globally. In turn, the availability of less expensive better quality, lighter draft coaches and wagons increased horse-drawn overland travel by making it cheaper and thus lowering energy costs.
Another way that Americans tackled the problem of mobility was to build canals, or artificial rivers, to provide cheaper transportation. Canals combined the low friction of water transport with animal power by having horses walk alongside the canal towing a boat. The towpath could be build for good horse traction, but the water provided a smooth, low-resistance surface. A canal boat pulled by two canal horses (many of which were half horses, or mules) could carry 50- 80 tons of freight at a steady speed of 4 miles per hour – far more freight, faster, than by wagon over a road.
The best example of a canal is the one truly successful canal in American history – The Erie Canal, a 363-mile canal across New York State. It was a stunning financial success that recouped the cost of construction in twelve years, and was a powerful engine of economic development and political change. It was entirely horse-powered. Thousands of horses walked to canal and provided the power for canal traffic. The Erie and most canals ran on horse power well into the twentieth century. Steamboats were not widely used or widely successful on canals until the twentieth century, and then only after some canals, like the Erie, were rebuilt and reengineered specifically as barge canals for steamboat use.
It is important to remember that in spite of all this road building, most American roads were terrible–dusty, hard and rutted in dry weather, a series of sloughs and waterfalls in wet weather, often lacking bridges and drainage–and they remained terrible into the twentieth century–only 3% were paved by 1900. Many canals lapsed into bankruptcy and disrepair. Americans wanted the mobility but they didn’t want to pay taxes and tolls for the necessary infrastructure. The costs of infrastructure construction and maintenance usually had a fatal head-on collision with American politics.
The most important factor that increased the use of horses in 19th century America was the advent of the steam-powered railroad. It has been axiomatic in many history books that the “iron horse” of steam-powered railroads replaced the use of real horses. However, horse populations grew dramatically as railroad construction expanded. This is apparent in the 1850s, when railroad mileage (which was 0 in 1829) expands from 9,000 to 30,000 miles, and the horse and mule population grows 67% from less than 5 million to over 8 million. By 1860 the census superintendent announced, “Railroads tend to increase the number and value of horses.” This was because horses made railroads usable. The relationship between steam engines and equine engines proved to be complementary rather than competitive.
In order to understand this, consider the nature of a railroad. The rails provide a hard smooth surface with little wheel resistance for a powerful prime mover. The hauling power of steam railroads was immense compared to horse-drawn hauling. But the limitations of steam railroad technology increased the use of horses. First, railroads were powerful because they were specialized – locomotives only traveled on their own rails. Track and locomotive formed a unit. But this meant that railroads could only go where there was track. No tracks, no train. Second, steam locomotives were only efficient over long distances and making few stops. Building up steam took time and fuel, and too-frequent stops required powering down and then powering up again. As a result, railroads excelled at long distance hauling, at which horses were most inefficient, but could not provide flexible, local transportation. This is what horses excelled at. As railroads replaced horses in the long-distance hauling business, railroads required the use of ever more horses around them to carry passengers and freight to and from railroad depots. And of course, as with canals and roads, horses were essential in the construction and maintenance of railroads.
How American railroads developed also increased the need for horses. Bitter partisan battles in state legislatures and Congress over roads and canals meant that many politicians gave up trying to get government funding for transportation projects. As a result, railroads were constructed and operated by private companies, though the government assisted with land and subsidies. However, this meant that railroads were laid out according to private rather than public needs. They were built to satisfy the interests of regional and local investors, not the public interest. Tracks were laid to channel commerce, control markets and exclude competition. What in history texts looks like an integrated railroad network was actually a fragmented mish-mosh of competing companies. Well into the nineteenth century, railroads maintained separate depots, not “union” stations serving all railroads. Some cities had as many as six different railroad depots. Railroad companies kept their tracks physically separate, and they also used tracks of different gauges from their competitors to confine rolling stock and business to their own network of rails.
This meant that there were many gaps in the system of travel and shipping. These gaps all required horses to move people and goods between railroads or between different modes of transportation. Traveling from Washington to New York in 1860 required transferring between depots in Baltimore and again in Philadelphia, and between railroads and ferries at the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Hudson Rivers. Since each railroad kept its own timetable, continuous journeys were rare, and hotels sprang up in the interstices of this system as well. The operators of hotels and horse-drawn transportation were vested interests favoring a non-integrated rail system. Additionally, because steam railroads were often prohibited within city limits because of fire danger from sparks and exploding locomotives, railroad cars were pulled by horses to center city depots.
This complementary relationship between horses and railroads resulted in the use of hundreds of thousands of horses during the Civil War — the Union army used 1 horse for every two to three soldiers. In the years after the Civil War, the complementary relationship between railroads and horses continued to swell horse populations and increase dependence on horse energy. Urban horses populations grew in size and density.
Railroads stimulated urban growth across the nation. Within cities, horse car mass transit increased the residential size and developed suburbs. In Philadelphia during the 1880s there were 429 miles of track over which horse-drawn cars carried 222 million passengers a year. But even after the electrification of the streetcars during the 1890s, urban horse populations grew even faster because of the expansion of hauling within and around cities and hinterlands. As we saw in the story of the Great Epi-zoh-otic, the circulation of people and goods in and around cities depended on horse drawn transportation. In addition to reshaping the landscape for horse use, and combining horses with steam power, mechanization was a critical component in the expansion of horsepower. Mechanization meant the invention of machinery that replicated and replaced the motion of the human body. These machines expanded the number of jobs for horses by means of these horse-powered machines.
Nowhere was this more apparent than agriculture. Until the early nineteenth century, most farm work was done by hand. However, from the 1830s on, the invention of the reaper and other horse-powered machines, made is possible to use horses for all kinds of farm work, by replacing human hand labor with specialized horse-drawn machinery. In addition to the reaper, there were hay rakes, seed drills, harrows, improved plows, hay balers, threshers, and devices called horsepowers that were horse-driven engines. All of these mechanical devices contributed to increases in agricultural productivity. Agricultural productivity doubled in the second half of the century, mostly due to the rising use of animal power in growing and processing crops.
Manufacture of agricultural machinery was one of the premier industries of the nineteenth century. The agricultural sector was a huge market for industrial products; in turn, rising agricultural production released many people from the necessity of producing food, contributed to rapid urban growth and the expansion of urban markets for agricultural products.
According to the census, consumption of animal power continued to rise absolutely from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. Even though Americans increased their use of other kinds of power as well, making animal power a smaller percentage of overall energy use, animal power continued to increase.
In 1870, half of American energy came from horses but in 1900 one third of energy consumed by Americans still came from horses. We find hoof prints in every sector of the economy, in the extraction of raw materials, in manufacturing, in agriculture, and in transportation. Nothing was produced or moved in American society without relying on horse energy at some point. As the Great epi-zoh-otic showed, there was no separate horse economy; horses were the economy.
Just how important horses were is not only reflected in census statistics, but in the development of veterinary medicine, the expanding scope of activity by the USDA, and the serious attention of civil, mechanical and agricultural engineers, nutritional scientists, breeders and geneticists, all of whom recognized the importance of horses and viewed horses as technology that could be studied and improved.
The peak years of horse use in the United States were between 1890 and 1920. Yet, these were also the years in which the lengthy, complicated transition away from the use of horse energy began to occur. If horses were so integral to American society, why does this happen? There are no “of courses” in history. Nothing just happens. I think that the transition away from animal power to internal combustion and electricity has to be understood in the context of the times.
This transition occurred in the context of a turbulent period at the turn of the century that put great strains on American society. Rapid economic changes, the creation of a new powerful rich class, growing chasm between that wealthy class and everyone else, unrestrained corporate power, political corruption, unpopular and unsuccessful wars, a severe economic depression, enormous immigration, public health concerns, social protest, labor unrest and unresponsive government led to a growing sense of crisis. This sense of crisis was particularly strong among middle-class urban Americans, and they became the center of a widespread reform impulse in American society that historians call Progressivism.
In response to the sense of crisis and disorder, Progressive reform sought to make American life more orderly, efficient, safe, sanitary, and peaceful. In order to do this, they sought to get control of urban space, control public behavior, clean things up, expand the use of electrical power, avoid politics, create rational procedures, and find private solutions to public problems. In pursuing these goals, horses became a target. Urban reformers thought horses were too dangerous and too unpredictable in their behavior. Humane reformers objected to how work horses were treated and thought getting rid of horses would get rid of drinking and other bad public behaviors. Political reformers were angry at railroad, streetcar, and hauling monopolies that used horses. Sanitary reformers objected to horses because of the tons of manure they deposited on city streets. Increasingly, reformers proclaimed, “the horse must go.” They became advocates of the automobile as the solution to a host of problems. They thought automobiles would solve the problems of traffic congestion, and, because they were machines, promote better public behavior. Automobiles would liberate urbanites them from reliance on monopolistic railroad companies, but also give them an alternative to using public streetcars that brought them into contact with immigrants and lower-class folk that middle class urbanites found unsavory. Because automobiles did not leave manure on the streets, and did not have minds of their own, urbanites saw them as a way to make cities cleaner, safer and more efficient. In short, automobiles would be a technological fix for a number of social and political problems, and avoid using the public political process to find solutions–remember the fights over building roads and canals? Automobiles privatized transportation for urban residents, of whom few owned horses.
Another factor was electrification. Electricity dramatically changed American ideas about energy. Electricity was very different than steam or animal power, because it could be transmitted over distance, and used far away from where it was produced. This gave electricity a magical quality that made its use seem effortless. There was no smoke, no fire, no work involved. Together, electricity and automobiles created a vision of society as a clean, efficient, rational, orderly place. In contrast horses were portrayed as inefficient and dirty. Automobiles became the symbol of modernity, moral order and scientific efficiency; horses became the symbol of the quaint and the backward.
We know that the use of horses did continue in cities for decades, especially for stop-and-go delivery of products such as ice and milk. In agriculture the use of horses persisted far longer. Some historians have been puzzled at the persistence of horses after the availability of tractors; but horses were versatile workers that could not be easily replaced with tractors and trucks, and tractors were not considered reliable until the 1930s. Farmers acquired cars without replacing their horses, and when they got tractors, often kept their horses out of utility and sentiment. However, by the 1950s there was very little horse use in the United States and horse populations sank to their lowest point during the twentieth century.
It’s interesting that at the beginning of the 21st century we see a resurgence in horse-based agriculture. For example, Essex Farm in upstate New York, run by Mark and Kristin Kimball, tries to do everything with mechanized horsepower. They do not however reject the use of complementary technology; taking over an abandoned farm, they used motorized plows to first reclaim the fields for planting. Logging and the wine industry are two other places where horses have been found to be a more precise and appropriate technology to replace motorized equipment.
We misunderstand the decline of horse power if we think it was just about simple substitution. Horses and automobiles are quite different technologies. As the number of horses declined, all the producers and consumers, products and knowledge, workers and institutions connected to horse use declined as well. Makers of carriages and wagons did not become automakers, farriers did not become mechanics, drivers did not become chauffeurs.
Horse power did not decline because of some law of the universe; it declined because people came to believe that horses were somehow holding America back. But it is clear that during the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, horses were what moved America forward, by powering the mobility and production that was part of explosive industrial development. Americans belief in mobility and economic growth came out of their experiences with horses as an abundant form of energy; their adoption of the automobile came from these assumptions about abundant mobility and abundant energy.
A larger problem is how Americans think about energy and technology. Americans tend to believe that they will discover a single source of energy that has no faults, is infinitely abundant, and will create economic prosperity and social harmony. They assume that any new technology must be adopted. They often don’t understand how technologies can complement each other. I hope that understanding the rise and fall of horse power can help us better understand the assumptions, conditions and goals that underlie our current use of energy and help us better face our own energy challenges.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.