Heyday of the Horse

Part of the Horse exhibition.

In Europe and in the Americas, the nineteenth century was the age of the machine. Mills and factories turned out goods by the ton. Bustling cities were linked by railroad and steamship. Yet without horses, this new world of industry could never have thrived.

In the 1800s, machines and horses often labored side by side. Many new inventions meant more work for horses, not less. In fact, horses worked at more varied jobs during the industrial era than at any other time. They pulled carriages, buses, and carts on streets and barges on canals. While steam engines pumped, horses kept the wheels of commerce turning. The age of the machine was also the heyday of the horse.

A steam fire engine such as were used circa 1896, and drawn by horses. This exhibition model has gleaming metal fixtures and red-colored spoke wheels.
Horse-drawn steam fire engine, Ambler, Pennsylvania (made in Seneca Falls, New York), 1896.
Denis Finnin/AMNH

Pulling Their Weight

Steam-powered fire engines like the one shown here were first introduced in the mid-1800s. Before that time, fire departments used hand-pumped engines that were light enough to be pulled by men. Steam engines were an improvement: they pumped water faster and never grew tired. Yet they also weighed three or four tons. So horses stepped in to haul the load--and became stars of the firefighting team.

Quick-Hitch Harness

With a quick-hitch harness, a fire horse could be ready to go in less than a minute. This network of leather straps hung from the firehouse ceiling. When the alarm rang, the horse rushed into place underneath. A firefighter released a switch, and the harness dropped down around the horse's body. With three snaps, the collar was closed and the reins were attached to the bit.

Fit For Firefighting

Fire horses had demanding jobs. They had to gallop uphill on hot summer days and down icy streets in the winter. They needed to be quick, ready to rush to the harness at the sound of a bell--and to be calm, willing to stand and wait patiently while engines pumped, firefighters shouted, and flames roared.

Only the most highly qualified were picked to become fire horses, and many were trained in firefighting schools. A favorite breed of fire departments was the Percheron, a carriage horse known for its strength and serene disposition. Many Percherons are dapple gray, fading to white as they age, and engines were often drawn by handsomely matched teams.

Mass Transit

Before cities had subways and light rail systems, people packed into horse-drawn streetcars. Many lines ran out to the suburbs. By providing commuters with cheap transportation, they allowed cities to expand.