In The City

Part of the Horse exhibition.

horse wagon
Horse-drawn wagon.
Library of Congress

Across Europe and North America, as industries grew and thousands of people moved from farms into cities, horses moved with them. Hard-working horse teams were the lifeblood of the city. They kept urban markets stocked with food and other supplies. Goods that arrived by steamship or rail were heaped onto carts at the loading dock. It took horses to wheel these goods through crowded streets to warehouses, markets, and homes.

A Living Machine

For captains of industry eager to turn a profit, the horse was as good as a living machine. Experts measured maintenance costs, such as feed, shelter, and veterinary care, against output-pounds of freight moved or bushels of grain milled. For some tasks, they argued, horses were simply a better bargain than steam.

By the 1870s, more than 300 U.S. patents were issued for horse-powered machinery. One idea that had its day was the horse ferry. Like steamboats, horse ferries used paddle wheels. A horse walked on a treadmill mounted on the deck, which turned the paddle wheel by a series of gears.

Did You Know?

  • In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan--more than 10 times the number of taxicabs on the streets of New York City today.
  • A typical city horse produced up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms) of manure and 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of urine a day.
  • Many city horses died young, sometimes in the street. In Chicago in 1916, more than 9,000 horse carcasses were carted away.
cartoon horse
Cartoon about horse abuse.
The Granger Collection, New York

Street Life

For some horses, city life was bitter and short. Drivers sometimes beat their horses, neglected them, or forced them to pull more than they could bear. In time, horse abuse came to be seen as a major public problem. When the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) formed in New York City in 1866, protecting horses was one of its most urgent goals.

How Much Horsepower?

When Scottish inventor James Watt developed a new kind of steam engine in the 1770s, he decided the best way to sell it was to compare it to the most familiar source of power at the time-the horse.

Based on experiments, Watt concluded that a draft horse was strong enough to lift 330 pounds 100 feet in one minute (150 kilograms 30 meters in one minute). Watt defined that quantity--33,000 "foot-pounds" in one minute--as one horsepower, although it would be difficult for a horse to exert that much power for a whole working day.

Lifting A Load

In the 1700s, horses helped lift water, stone, coal, and other materials by driving simple machines. A horse gin is an example: a horse turned a shaft attached to a cable, which wound or unwound to raise or lower a load.