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 Cleaning The Streets of New York
Elizabeth Robilotti

New York City spends seven million dollars a year on cleaning its streets and carrying away its garbage and ashes, but no city has money enough-New York, with all its wealth, hasn't money enough-to keep the streets clean if the citizen's don't co-operate.--Henry Bruere, city reformer and chamberlain, 1914

At the end of the nineteenth century, New York City emerged as the dominant economic and cultural power in the United States. Poor sanitation and filthy streets threatened both the physical health of the population and the economic viability of the developing metropolis. While major sanitary reforms under Street-Cleaning Commissioner George Waring addressed many of the city's flagrant sanitary inadequacies in the 1890's by 1914, citizens demanded further improvements from the Department of Street Cleaning (DSC).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to The City of New York Department of Records and Information Services for the above photographs.

The Progressive Era reform mentality that characterized American society at the turn of the century influenced city sanitarians and concerned citizens alike. This mutual interest in reform prompted the DSC to host an exhibition in November 1914. The Street Cleaning Exhibition provided an opportunity for citizens to voice their concerns and to see first-hand the improvements of the department. The week long exhibition attracted 27,273 people. The exhibition also provided manufacturers with the opportunity to market new cleaning devices and offer practical demonstrations of their equipment under New York City specific circumstances.

The exhibition also featured an evening lecture series to allow citizens and experts to exchange ideas about street cleaning and sanitation. Each night was dedicated to a specific aspect of sanitation, ranging from the public health impact of dirty streets to ideas for indoctrinating the city's population with good sanitary habits. Overall, the exhibition stressed individual responsibility and public cooperation in sanitary reform efforts. Commissioner Fetherston remarked:

    We want to get you interested in clean streets; we want to have your co-operation in making New York the cleanest city in the world. It can be done, if you want it; it will be done, if you make enough noise about it. But you have to back the Department of Street Cleaning and you have to do your part. This work is co-operative work; its success depends upon your efforts as much as our efforts. (Report of the Exhibition and Tests of Street Cleaning Appliances, 1914, p 38)