Cleaning towns and streets - a history

15th of May 2013
Cleaning towns and streets - a history
Cleaning towns and streets - a history

In the latest part of our exclusive series about the history of hygiene, we focus on city and town cleaning. When did sanitation and waste removal become a priority on the streets of Europe and how was today’s modern street cleaning equipment developed?

The cleanliness of towns and streets has been a concern ever since they first came about because they quickly became dumping grounds for all types of waste. This of course resulted in numerous health concerns. Early texts state that from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century “the streets of European cities were foul with excrement and filth to the extent that aristocrats often held a clove-studded orange to their nostrils in order to tolerate the atmosphere”. These concerns were not only prevalent in Europe, but in North America too.

David Rosner, professor of history and co-director of the programme in the History of Public Health and Medicine at the School of Public Health at Columbia University writes in his portrait of New York in the 1800s: “New York City epitomised a city in crisis during the 19th century. A small city of approximately 30,000 in 1800, New York began to essentially double in size every 10 years. By the turn of the 20th century the population had reached four million.

“Such incredible 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 a day. Horses, pigs, sheep and cattle were all part of everyday city life, with pigs regularly roaming around in herds.

Despite the presence of animals the city – like most others – had no systematic street cleaning regime. “During winter, neighbourhoods sometimes rose between two and six feet in height because of the accumulation of waste and snow,” writes Rosner. Horses posed an additional street cleaning dilemma. A horse carcass is far beyond the lifting capabilities of a person so when one died it would be left to rot until it had disintegrated enough for someone to pick up the pieces. Children would play with dead horses.

No flushing toilets

At this stage in history cities lacked not only street cleaning – there was no sewage system and no flushing toilets either. This meant rubbish, which included human waste, was thrown out of windows onto city streets. New fashions and courtesies evolved - gentlemen wore high heels to protect their long trousers from the filth and broad brimmed hats to protect their heads from excrement flying out second-story windows. Ladies walked close to the buildings, where they were less likely to receive a direct hit.

Diseases including the Bubonic Plague, cholera and typhoid fever were widespread: in fact they altered the populations of Europe - between a quarter and a third of the population died.  They were allowed to spread because the sheer filth on the streets harboured rats and contaminated the water supply.

In London, storm drain effluent poured into the River Thames, which caused the years of 1858 and 1859 to be known as the Great Stink. Paris was also suffering the consequences of its own poor waste management. John Ralston Saul wrote in Voltaire’s Bastards - The Dictatorship of Reason in the West: “The famed Paris sewer system was created over a long period of time in the second half of the 19th century. The long delays were largely due to the virulent opposition of property owners, who did not want to pay to install sanitary piping to their buildings.

“The prefect of Paris, Monsieur Poubelle, succeeded in forcing rubbish bins on the property owners in 1887 only after a ferocious public battle.

“In 1900 owners were still fighting against the obligations to put their buildings on the public sewer system and to cooperate in the collection of waste. By 1910 a little over half of the city’s buildings were on the sewer system and only half of the cities in France had any sewers at all.

“Photos of early 20th century Marseilles show great piles of refuse and excrement down the centre of the streets.”

Scientists eventually discovered the link between disease, contaminated water and squalor. Open sewers around the cities of Europe died out and modern sewage systems were gradually introduced.

But how and when did the cleaning of our streets start? City of London records from 1863-64 show an order to scavengers to clear dirt, soil and filth from city streets. London’s poor became the scavenging underclass – photographs of public disinfectors exist from 1876-78.

Early street sweeping was carried out by people armed with a shovel, broom and dustpan, who walked up and down the streets cleaning up what waste they could. The first mechanised street sweeper was patented by engineer Joseph Whitworth of Manchester in England.

In the USA the first street sweeping machine was patented in 1849 by its inventor, CS Bishop. For a long time they were simply rotating disks covered with wire bristles, with the disks serving as mechanical brooms.

In 1911 John Murphy visited the offices of American Tower and Tank Company in Elgin, IL with his plan of a motor driven pick-up street sweeper. The American Tower and Tank Company had been formed in 1903 by Charles Whiting and James Todd. It was decided to hire Murphy and begin the development of his idea. That started what has become the Elgin Sweeper Company.

With environmental awareness growing in the 1970’s, officials began to show concern for the water quality in our waterways. Older street sweepers were only capable of removing road debris, small particles of debris along with hazardous waste products were left behind. In the past, the remaining debris was not seen as an issue as the rain would wash it away, now we know the small particles carry a substantial portion of pollution into the storm drains and eventually to the waterways.

Today’s sweepers are equipped with water tanks and sprayers used to loosen particles and reduce dust. The brooms gather debris into a main collection area from which it is vacuumed and pumped into a collection bin or hopper.


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