The year 1895 saw the publication of the first ever automobile periodical in the United States – The Horseless Age. Appearing five years before U.S. horse populations peaked, it was made clear from the onset that the car was intended to be a ‘substitute’ for the horse. As a statement from editor E. P. Ingersoll makes clear, however, it was not increased speed that was initially desired so much as increased sanitation. If Henry Ford had asked people what they wanted they would probably have said cleaner horses. In 1880, New York City alone was home to at least 150,000 horses, who deposited a combined total of 45,000 tons of excrement on the streets every month (at a conservative estimate). Meanwhile, buoyed by the completion of the first skyscraper – the Equitable Life Insurance Building, which stood at a whopping 40 metres high – in 1870, the U.S. government optimistically assembled a panel of leading global experts to predict what New York would look like in a century’s time. The consensus was unanimous: by 1980 New York City would have ceased to exist, buried under a mountain of horse shit. If equine numbers had continued to grow in relation to the human populous, by 1980 there would have been more than six million horses living and excreting in New York City.
It is not such a wonder, then, that The Horseless Age made its case for the automobile ‘on sanitary grounds.’ Charles E. Duryea of the Duryea Motor Company – formed in 1895 – had a regular column in The Horseless Age, and received a question from a civilian who was concerned about the prospect of automobiles belching out columns of smoke into the air. Fortunately Duryea (not a scientist but a car manufacturer) was able to confirm that any odour produced by the motor wagon was entirely harmless, containing ‘no elements of filth’ nor ‘gasses that are decidedly poisonous.’ And, of course, cars don’t shit – problem solved!
It was in this same decade that the word ‘muckraking’ was first used to describe a scandalous form of investigative journalism which sought to expose the dirt and waste hidden by ostensibly clean and efficient institutions. The concept of waste, whether this be the misuse of time and resources or literally animal excrement, had become a pejorative American byword by the 1900s, and was considered to be a blotch on civilised human society. Henry Ford described his own ‘horror of waste’ and made it his personal mission to rid society of ‘waste motion’ and ‘waste effort’ – to say nothing of horse waste. A progressive society demanded the replacement of inefficient and out-dated systems limited by the power of animals (both human and non-human) with modern technologies which appeared cleaner and more civilised – so long as no one went sniffing around their outhouses.
The Muckrakers, however, remained true to their name, and weren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty if it meant exposing corruption, exploitation, and waste. Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) lived amongst the predominantly immigrant workers in the Chicago Stockyards (the largest concentration of meat-packers and slaughterhouses in the United States) for seven weeks in 1904, before producing his novelistic exposé The Jungle two years later. The mechanised abattoir (which inspired Ford’s overhead assembly line) was introduced to reduce human contact with animals and their waste products, an example of technology interposing between the “clean” and the “dirty” in order to confirm human exceptionalism. Sinclair tells the stories of those who do society’s dirty work (including literal muck raking) to demonstrate how industrial capitalists such as the meat packers (and in his later work, oil barons and car manufacturers) actually premise their entire operations on producing waste: utilising natural resources and human labour for minimum communal efficiency and maximum individual profit.
The muckraker movement demonstrated one thing for certain: less horses did not necessarily mean less horseshit.