Archive Quick Search
Basic searchAdvanced search

 Development Lab

The Development Lab represents a space for students, faculty, and researchers begin to work with and add to the content of The Living City (TLC).

Interview with David Rosner
Portrait of an Unhealth City: New York in the 1880s

Collapse of NYC
New York City epitomized a city in crisis during the nineteenth century. From a small city of approximately 30,000 in 1800, New York began to essential double in size every 10 years. By the turn of the century the population had reached 4 million, almost all of whom lived either below 57th Street in Manhattan or along the border of Brooklyn--a tiny portion of the modern city's boundaries.

Such incredible human congestion combined with a primitive infrastructure to create ideal conditions for a dramatic increase in epidemic disease. The relatively healthful city of 1800 experienced an onslaught of infectious diseases. Cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, malaria and other mosquito- and tick-borne diseases festered. The city's mortality rate skyrocketed and children died in large numbers. The city seemed to be coming apart.

Horse-Driven Infrastructure
At the turn of the nineteenth century, New York City's infrastructure relied upon disease creating entities such as the horse. Between 100,000 and 200,000 horses lived in the city at any given time. Each one of those horses gave off 24 pounds of manure and several quarts of urine a day.

The vast majority of city horses were not elegant animals who pulled carriages and lived in stables near the homes of the wealthy; most were big workhorses who did all the hauling--pulling wagons loaded with goods from the shore. Big teams of workhorses powered the city's horse-driven street trolley system. The limited range and speed of these trolleys were one reason everyone lived below 57th Street. Horses are very inefficient in terms of moving people--especially atop big, heavy trolleys. Horses get tired, hungry and thirsty. Horses also drop dead. The average lifespan of a horse in New York City in the 1860-70s was a meager two-and-a-half years. They were literally worked to death.

Slideshow: Portrait of an Unhealthy City: New York in the 1880s

Workhorses were poorly kept and lived in big garages within New York's "horse districts," such as on the 20s in the East Side. Large granaries existed alongside horse garages, attracting rats and other rodents. As an added danger, rotting food within the granaries would occasionally explode, burning down the granary and perhaps the neighborhood. In fact, New York City in the 1800s was built around supporting not only human beings, but also animals. Horses, pigs, sheep and cattle were all part of everyday city life. Pigs regularly roamed through the city in herds.

Stoops, Carcasses, and Manure Blocks
Despite the presence of animals, the city had no systematic street-cleaning efforts. During winter, neighborhoods sometimes rose between two and six feet in height due to the accumulation of waste and snow. The middle-class brownstones of the 1880s provided a stoop leading to a second floor entrance so that the residents would rise above manure--which seeped into the ground floor during a storm or with melting snow. Horses posed an additional street-cleaning dilemma. A horse carcass can easily weigh 1,200 pounds, far beyond the lifting capabilities of a person. When a horse died, its carcass would be left to rot until it had disintegrated enough for someone to pick up the pieces. Children would play with dead horses lying on the streets.

Once the Brooklyn Bridge was built, the city started taking waste out of Manhattan and depositing it in the farmland communities of Queens. They collected it in "manure blocks"--literally huge city blocks devoted to the collection of horse manure. City maps from the era show manure blocks in very close to the water reservoir on 42nd Street.

Night soil
In addition to lacking street cleaning, the city also had no sewage system and no flush toilets. Garbage--which included both human and animal waste--was basically thrown out windows and onto city streets. Today, antique stores on Columbus Avenue in New York sell "chamber pots" for $300. Essentially a basin, you would use the chamber pot as a toilet in the middle of the night, making a deposit of what was called "night soil." Between the hours of 5am and 7am, you were supposed to bring down your night soil and deposit it in your outdoor privy, usually an overflowing heap. More often than not, however, the actual custom was to sling it out into the middle of the street from the window of your four-story walkup.

This practice led to all sorts of etiquette problems. Miss Manners books told young ladies to wear parasols during the day not just to keep off the sun or the rain, but also to protect you in case something was to fall from the sky. Men were supposed to wear wide-brimmed hats and walk on the outside of the curb, so that they might get splattered instead of the young lady.

Coming Projects

Building the Living City
A History of Public Health is a distance learning course that we are developing in conjunction with Columbia University's Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. The course will provide student with an opportunity to work with data from TLC and add data to TLC, adapting a template based on the Hell's Kitchen South Project.

Care in the Community
Hospitals and Institutions in New York and Brooklyn project we will be digitizing the annual reports from a selection of public and private hospitals central to the history of public health and medicine in New York City.

The Picturing Race project is part of our larger effort to scan all of the images related to health and the built environment in a number of magazines in the 19th and 20th century illustrated press. We are culling out and analyzing a database of images depicting the race, ethnicity, or nationality of immigrants to the nation between 1891 and 1920, which corresponds with the major period of the federal inspection of immigrants.