Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How the City of Chicago Dealt with all the Horse Manure.

Manure vaults were underground covered holes in alleys all over Chicago that "Manure Mongers" (street sweepers) would swept-up horse manure from the local area and empty it into the vault closing the lid. Later, the vault would be shoveled out, and the manure carted off.
A typical "Manure Vault" in a Chicago alley in 1918.
Workhorses were used for personal transportation, pulling streetcars for public transportation, and delivering materials and products to commercial and residences. These vaults were one way of keeping the streets clean of horse manure. 

In the late 1890s, Chicago had about 83,000 horses living and working in the city. On average, one horse creates between 40 to 50 pounds of manure daily at 40 pounds per day, or 3,320,000 pounds, or 1,660 tons of horse manure to dispose of daily. Furthermore, each horse produced around 2 pints of urine per day. The sheer volume made what was a nuisance in small towns and a crisis in large metropolitan areas.
The manure was smelly, dirty, and attracted flies, spreading diseases to humans. When it dried up and became dust, the breeze would spread the manure for miles, polluting the air and sickening Chicagoans. Some of it was shipped to area farms for agricultural use, and some were mixed in with cement as a binder and used to pave streets. Still, there was too much manure to efficiently dispose of.

With the upcoming World's Columbian Exposition scheduled to open in 1893, Chicago made the cleanup of manure a critical priority in 1892. It would be embarrassing for the city to have filthy streets when Chicago would be under worldwide scrutiny.

One strategy to deal with all the manure was the underground manure vault to diminish the problem. Manure was bailed and transported out of the city, along with manure being incinerated. The ultimate solution to the manure problem was just beginning in the U.S.

In 1893 Frank Duryea was reported to have made the first horseless carriage trip on U.S. roads in Springfield, Massachusetts. He traveled approximately 600 yards before engine problems forced him to stop and make repairs. 
America's First Automobile Race took place in Chicago, Illinois, in 1895. Winner, Frank Duryea, traveled 54 miles at an average of 7.5 mph in 10 hours and 23 minutes, including repair time, marking the first U.S. automobile race in which any entrants finished. 

By 1900 there were only 377 automobiles registered with the Board of Examiners of Operators of Automobiles. The Comparative Wheel Tax Statement shows that in 1916 there were 46,662 horse-drawn vehicles and 65,651 automobiles. By 1940 there were fewer than 2,000 horse-drawn vehicles and over 600,000 cars. The fastest changes happened in the 1920s.
Today, horses are equipped with bags to collect their manure before it hits the Chicago streets.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. Many horses were still being used until after WW2. Milk, ice, and many vendors and junk collectors used them. The Chicago police also used a lot of them until after the war. Fortunately, most used the alleys to conduct their business.

  2. My house here in Pilsen had a milk and cheese store on the first floor,the family lived in the 3 bedroom apartment behind the store and had a garage built specifically for their horse and carriage they used to make deliveries in the neighborhood.

  3. Interesting article. It seems the Columbian expedition in Chicago was a good thing for the city for a variety of reasons. It forced progress in some aspects.

  4. Such an interesting article. I can't imagine the stench of all that manure. The photo in this article shows a real "traffic jam" of horses & carriages.

  5. Another interesting and informative article

  6. Growing up in the '50s on 17th St. just East of Ashland Ave horse drawn wagons were almost a daily site. Coal was delivered. Produce was sold from the wagons and through the alleys you would hear shouts of "Rags and Iron". Wagon drivers would buy wrought iron and rags usually from kids running out to the alley with instuctions from their parents.

  7. I grew up in Wicker Park (Damen & LeMoyne) in the late 1940s and early 50s there were horses stabled all around the area. Not a huge number but they were there.

  8. I vaguely recall a horse drawn wagon either selling stuff or sharpening knives in 50's traveling thru our alley. The driver made some weird metallic noise to announce it's arrival and departure as it traveled down our alley on S. Bishop street.

  9. I grew up on the Northest side. In the 50s early 60s a horse drawn cart would go through our alley yelling strawberries. The guy would have all kinds of fruit and vegetables.


The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal™ is RATED PG-13. Please comment accordingly. Advertisements, spammers and scammers will be removed.