Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Animal of the Nineteenth Century

Did you ever see an old image of "fire horses, noses flaring, galloping to a conflagration pulling a smoking, four-ton, steam-powered, coal-fired pump"? Did it make you wonder? Wasn't the 19th century supposed to be the century of industrialization and the triumph of the steam engine?

Clay McShane and Joel Tarr actually saw that image, and wrote a book based on the paradox it hid in front of everyone's eyes, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). "Numerous scholars have written about the triumph of the steam engine in the nineteenth century and ignored the living engine," they write. "This view of the horse is wrong-headed -- the nineteenth century also marked the triumph of the horse. The horse was a flexible, evolving technology and, like its accomplice, the steam engine, was crucial to the evolution of themodern city."{14-15}

I found a nice photo of a livery stable in an ancestral neighborhood of Pittsburgh, but that's really not the point here. You don't understand your city-dwelling ancestors of the 1800s without knowing something about the horses they depended upon, and the vast network of urban and rural facilities that bred, equipped, and fed those horses. (And if you think cars pollute, wait 'til you read about what happened with wood block pavements.)

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