Putting the Horse Before the Cart

In the second half of the 19th century, New Yorkers certainly horsed around. Indeed, one of the biggest problems faced by municipal planners of a rapidly growing metropolis was the staggering number of horses needed to keep the city running. The problem of cleaning up after the herds presented a logistical nightmare.

Growing mechanization at the turn of the 20th century eventually solved this problem but horses did not disappear overnight. In the first two decades of the 20th century horses were still to be found employed throughout the city. In fact, the company that styled itself “the largest horse supplier in the world” at the start of the last century was located on the spot where Baruch College’s William and Anita Newman Vertical Campus now stands. (Before that it was a livestock market.)


Bull’s Head Market (Grafton, John, New York in the Nineteenth Century: 317 Engravings from “Harper’s Weekly” and Other Contemporary Sources New York: Dower Publication Inc, 1980, pg 206.


“New York Times”, October 1, 1898 pg. 11


William and Anita Newman Vertical Campus

In 1913 the New York Bureau of Municipal Research decided to investigate how many horses were still being used by various city agencies, sending out a brief questionnaire with the following questions:

1 – What is the location of all stables owned or leased by the department, with their capacity of horses and the number of horses at present stables in each?

2- How many horses does the department own, and to what use are they put?

3 -How many horse-drawn vehicles are owned by the department – where are they housed and to what use are they put?

4 – What is the average number of horses, drivers and vehicles hired per day – the average time each is worked – and the rate of hire? Are they hired regularly all the year or only at special times?

5 – Do you do your own shoeing?

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Returned Questionnaire

The result showed that almost every single city department and agency either still owned or regularly hired horses for various jobs. The largest horse owner was the Department of Street Cleaning (the future Department of Sanitation) which had 2,823 horses in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. (Queens and Staten Island often came under a different administrative structure.)

The Fire Department was  second, employing 1,400 horses for fire engines and transportation, in addition to hiring around 60 horses from outside vendors.

The Police Department was a distant third with 620 horses engaged in various services. Interestingly, the Police Department indicated it had recently lowered the amount paid to have its horses shod, going from $39,933.5 in 1911 (around $959,000 today) to $26,917.66 by 1913 (around $646,000 today).

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Department of Street Cleaning Inventory

The majority of the departments, however, owned far fewer horses. For instance, the Board of Education had only two stables – one in Queens and one in Brooklyn, with a total of six horses. The horses were used for such tasks as delivering laundry and bread (and sometimes truant students) to the Brooklyn Truants’  Home, as well as carting manure, plowing and harrowing on one of the school farms.

One of the Home’s more notorious denizens was Salvatore Lucania, better known as the mob boss Lucky Luciano, who did a stint there in 1911.


Bellevue Hospital had 14 horses in its main location of which one was used for a hearse, one for the transfer wagon, one for laundry truck, one for store truck, 8 for ambulances, and 2 for the pathological laboratory. At least one horse at its Fordham location was used for transportation between the subway and hospital for visiting physicians and other individuals.

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Some departments owned almost no horses and contracted out. For instance, the Department of Public Works owned a single horse which was used by the inspector in charge of roads and viaducts. It would however hire horses on a daily basis if needed.

Similarly, the Bureau of Weights and Measures had no stables or horses but employed two horses and wagons at a rate of $5 a day (around $120 today). Because the average daily rate was around $3.50, the department felt that it needed to justify the steep price tag in its answer to the Bureau of Municipal Research, noting that only a single inspector was present in each wagon but was required to carry between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds of test weight. Lifting the weights required a great deal of effort and the driver of the cart was paid extra to assist the inspector. If not for this expedient, noted the Bureau, a second inspector in the cart would entail an additional annual salary expenditure of $1,200.

Interestingly, the only city agency that did not indicate the employment of any horses was the New York Public Library. It  used two electric delivery wagons to transact its business. How green was my Library!

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4 thoughts on “Putting the Horse Before the Cart

  1. Fascinating all this research you’re digging up. Some questions:

    By 1913, were there traffic regulations in effect for all these horse-drawn vehicles? (“Galloping allowed only by fire engines and ambulances.” “Trotters pass on the left.” “Unnecessary neighing not permitted.” )

    Wasn’t it a bit self-defeating for the Dept. of Street Cleaning to have so many horses?

  2. Thanks, Shelley. I’ll respond to No. 2 first (and we really are talking about No. 2 if you get my drift.) ARE YOU KIDDING? OF COURSE! The carbon footprint was enormous, especially when you stepped in it. As for your other good questions, we’re going to research them as part of a larger article we’re contemplating on snow fighting then and now. Thanks for being a diligent reader!

  3. Since you are obviously an expert on the matter: did people in the city own and ride horses themselves to get around? (like in the Westerns?) Were there hitching posts outside City Hall and nearby taverns? I can only picture the elegant “uptowners” in their fancy carriages, not anyone directly on horseback.

    Maybe there was an early form of the bicycle sharing program we have now. Surely, CitiHorse probably would have been a good idea for the time, but a bit difficult to manage without an app.

    • Without deeply researching the question, I can tell you that ordinary New Yorkers did not keep horses. Where? How? They barely could house and feed their families. Anyway public transportation then was better than it is now, thanks to what I once called “a desire named streetcars.” But the automotive industry made short work of the beloved trolleys, conspiring to drive them off the nation’s urban streets. The rich, for sure, maintained horses — hence all the carriage houses still around (that now quarter Bentleys). I think there are still some hitching posts to be found around town. As for horse-sharing, I doubt it. Too socialist for Americans.

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