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).
with David Rosner
of an Unhealth City: New York in the 1880s
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 4½ 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.
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.
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
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.
Portrait of an
Unhealthy City: New York in the 1880s
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.
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.
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
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
the Living City
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.
in the Community
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.