How Epidemics of the Past Changed the Way Americans Lived | Smithsonian Magazine


In the 19th century, city streets in the U.S. overflowed with filth.

People tossed their discarded newspapers, food scraps, and other trash out their windows onto the streets below. The plentiful horses pulling streetcars and delivery carts contributed to the squalor, as each one dropped over a quart of urine and pounds of manure every day. When a horse died, it became a different kind of hazard.

In “Portrait of an Unhealthy City,” Columbia University professor David Rosner writes that since horses are so heavy, when one died in New York City, “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.”

More than 15,000 horse carcasses were collected and removed from New York streets in 1880. Human waste was a problem, too. Many people emptied chamber pots out their windows. Those in tenement housing did not have their own facilities, but had 25 to 30 people sharing a single outhouse. These privies frequently overflowed until workers known as “night soil men” arrived to haul away the dripping barrels of feces, only to dump them into the nearby harbor.

As civic and health leaders began to understand that the frequent outbreaks of tuberculosis, typhoid and cholera that ravaged their cities were connected to the garbage, cities began setting up organized systems for disposing of human urine and feces. Improvements in technology helped the process along.

Officials began introducing sand filtration and chlorination systems to clean up municipal water supplies. Indoor toilets were slow to catch on, due to cost, issues with controlling the stench, and the need for a plumbing system.

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Source: How Epidemics of the Past Changed the Way Americans Lived | History | Smithsonian Magazine

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