Book Summary: “Horses at Work: Horses in Industrial America” by Ann Norton Greene

Title: Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America
Author: Ann Norton Greene
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

The author explores the role of the horse in 19th Century America.

If you would like to learn more about domesticated animals in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

After the invention of the railroad, horse use dramatically increased! This is a dramatic example of how a “cutting-edge” technology can lead to great expansions in the use of seemingly obsolete technologies.

Key Take-aways

  • Before 1800 horses were fairly uncommon in the United States because there were few quality roads. Transportation was largely via water. Most farm work was done by humans.
  • Horse use expanded dramatically in 19th Century America, far faster than human population growth. Between 1840 and 1910, their number grew six-fold.
  • The railroad transformed long-distance trade, making short-distance trade far more important than it was previously. Before the invention of cars, only horses could fill that demand.
  • in the 19th Century, horses filled the role currently filled by tractors, cars, pickups, SUVs, delivery vans, construction vehicles and mass transit.
  • Horses are about 5 times as energy-efficient as steam locomotives, more maneuverable and able to constantly stop-and-start. Nor do they need expensive dedicated railways.
  • Once roads were built, companies had the incentive to improve wagons, which created more demand for roads.
  • Horses were far more common in cities and on farms than railroads.
  • Due to breeding, the size of draft horse doubled between 1860 and 1880.
  • The first urban mass transit were horse-drawn omnibuses (huge carriages). These were replaced by horse-drawn streetcars. These technologies enabled suburbanization long before the car was invented.
  • The mechanization of agriculture in the 1830s and 40s greatly increased the need for horses as prime movers on farms.
  • The need to grow hay and grain for horses took up an increasing proportion of agricultural land.

Important Quotes from Book

This book is about the draft horses found in the Northeast and Midwest during the nineteenth century and their role in the industrialization of the United States.

Popular excitement about steam engines had obscured the fact that they made horses more important than ever. Horses and steam engines complemented each other as prime movers. City life underscored the significance of this relationship. Steam power concentrated industry and population in the industrial cities, but most of urban life depended on power from horses.

However, as much as people might like to think of horses as specimens of original nature, horses are one of the very oldest kinds of technology. More precisely, horses are biotechnology, or organisms altered for human use. Through the process of domestication, horses became living machines. For five millennia humans have been modifying horses by breeding them for size, strength, speed, temperament, and appearance so that they would be more useful in transportation, work, warfare, and sport. In addition, humans created the devices that make it possible to access horses’ physical power and apply it to their purposes.

The nineteenth century stands out because it was a time when horses were so widely used that they were not just elite animals, but the work animals for many Americans. Early in the century horse use began to increase noticeably, and this trend continued until the twentieth century was well underway and the use of horses began to decline. As a result, horses were ubiquitous in nineteenth-century society.

 In nineteenth-century America, horses occupied the niche of fractional power, as highly mobile, versatile prime movers complementing the role of the steam engine, which had greater power but was less versatile. Without the motive power of horses, the role of steam power would have been far different. As steam power altered transportation and production, it created new jobs for horses in the interstices of these developing sectors. In the twentieth century, the role of horses would move from the center to the periphery of the industrial system, but for more than a century horses occupied a niche that no other prime mover could fill.

Energy history is environmental history; different kinds of energy transform the environment into different kinds of landscapes. Developments in transportation transformed the landscape, by rebuilding it into one where horses could be efficiently used, by promoting farming and manufacturing in newly accessible areas, and by facilitating the migration of populations of animals and plants—humans, horses, other domesticated animals, and the plants of crops and gardens—into new regions. As organic beings that are prime movers, horses challenge any conventional nature-technology divide.

The resilience of horse power can be measured by the fact that it took three kinds of power to replace horses as prime movers. Steam engines replaced long-distance hauling, but with the consequence of dramatically increasing the number of horses used for short-distance haulage. Electric power replaced the use of horses in mass transit. Only the third one, automotive transport, came close to replicating the horse as a prime mover, by offering Americans not only more power, but power in the form of separate, self-propelled prime movers to which they had become accustomed.

The nineteenth century was much more the age of horse power than the age of steam power. Horses, not steam engines, established the material environment and cultural values that have shaped energy use in the twentieth century.

Equine efficiency is 15 to 20 percent, comparable to the efficiency of an internal combustion engine. In contrast, the steam locomotive had an efficiency of approximately 3 to 6 percent.

In 1840 there were 4.3 million horses and mules in the United States. By 1910 this figure had risen sixfold, to 27.5 million, nearly twice the rate of human population growth.

A “train trip” from Washington to New York at midcentury was also a horse trip. It took a lot of horses to fi ll in the gaps between the tracks of different railroad companies, and between railroads and other kinds of transportation. It is a reminder that horses were the indispensable prime movers of the nineteenth century. It further demonstrates that the “transportation revolution” that occurred between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

At the beginning of the century, most travel in the young nation took place on water, contingent on winds, currents, tides, and water levels. Great distances, rough terrain, and rudimentary roads made overland travel by wagon team, pack train, stagecoach, or horseback slow, strenuous, and expensive. The high cost of transportation by horses under these conditions kept settlement and commerce concentrated along rivers and coasts, while backcountry areas were isolated from outside markets and government authority.

Canal boats pulled by horses remained the least expensive way to haul bulky products such as lumber, stone, coal, and crops throughout the century, even after railroads diverted cap ital, passengers, and attention. They were an important link in the industrial transportation system.

By the 1850s railroads had become a national obsession, dominating the American imagination with their explosive expansion accompanied by the rapid change they brought to many communities… By 1860 the nation had 30,626 miles, two-thirds of which had been constructed in the preceding decade.

Horses remained essential to every aspect of railroad operation, beginning with construction. Just as horses built roads and canals, they built railroads, by hauling materials, grading roadbeds, powering cranes, pulling cars on completed sections, and transporting workers.

There was no continuous railroad “system,” but instead a disjointed hodgepodge of companies with many interstices in which horse-related businesses flourished.

Only horses could provide short-distance hauling to and from the railroads and between points not on the railroads. Railroads enhanced the value and volume of horse-drawn traffic on well-placed roads and canals that provided access to the railroads, but horses made the railroads useful in the first place.

Consequently, antebellum steam locomotives were more efficient than horses over long distances with infrequent stops, but over distances of less than fifteen miles that included stopping and starting, living machines were more efficient than locomotives.

The Civil War was a war of animal power. Thousands of horses accompanied the armies of both sides, pulling artillery and supply wagons, carrying cavalry, cannoneers, and officers. They provided the power for transportation and communication, and made possible the kind of fighting that occurred, and the war’s scope and scale.

After humans, horses were the foremost source of energy needed for the Civil War, and procuring an adequate supply was a critical task for both armies.

Both tactical decisions and strategic planning rested in part on whether military leaders had enough forage, or thought they could obtain enough forage for their horses in all categories.

The army’s daily forage ration was fourteen pounds of hay for horses and mules, and twelve pounds of grain for horses and nine for mules. The hay provided nutrition and the bulk required by the horse’s digestive system, while the grain afforded high-energy food for muscle and energy.

In contrast, the daily food ration for human soldiers weighed only three pounds, and human soldiers ate a wider variety of food and could forage for themselves in ways that horses could not.

Since wagon horses consumed forage in the process of moving forage, wagons could proliferate to the point of diminishing returns, with horses pulling wagons laden only with forage for themselves.

What made reliable supplies of horseshoes possible was a critical prewar invention. In 1857 Henry Burden, president of the Troy Iron and Nail Works in New York State, patented a machine that made saleable, mass-produced horseshoes.

There were startling gains in the number of horses: the national population rose from approximately seven million in 1860 to nearly twenty-five million in 1900. Most of these resided east of the Mississippi River. They were integral in two of the great transformations of the Gilded Age—the growth of the industrial city and the mechanization of agriculture.

Urban herds grew over 350 percent as horses urbanized 50 percent faster than humans.

Horses provided virtually all the power for the internal circulation of city life because no other prime mover could compete with them technologically.

Between 1860 and 1880 crossbreeding with large European draft horses increased the average size of the American draft horse from 900–1,100 pounds to 1,800–2,000 pounds.

The majority of urban horses worked hauling freight into and around the city. There was hardly a raw material or finished good that did not travel by horse power at some point between production and consumption.

Streetcar horses were the single largest group of equine workers within the urban herd and played one of the most significant roles in urban development.

Mechanization had brought horses into agricultural production during the 1830s and 1840s. It is commonly assumed that horses were always used in agriculture, but before the invention and availability of mechanical agricultural implements in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, most farm work was performed by humans using hand labor and few horses. After midcentury, the widening use of agricultural machines that applied horse power to more aspects of farm work increased the number of horses used. This agricultural revolution followed the transportation revolution that increased farmers’ access to new factory-produced machines and new markets. Each stage of agricultural production can become a bottleneck for lack of labor or energy, but mechanization relieved one bottleneck after another in northern agriculture by applying horse power to agriculture. Both the transportation revolution and the agricultural revolution increased reliance on horses as prime movers.

Horses remained the most reliable source of motive power in agriculture until the 1930s.

If you would like to learn more about domesticated animals in history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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