In 1895 New York City’s newly appointed reformist Mayor William Lafayette Strong nominated engineer and Civil War veteran Colonel George Waring to take on the demanding post of Sanitation Commissioner.
During his three-year spell in office, Waring made a lasting impact on the quality of life in the city by initiating systems for the collection and recycling of garbage. He mobilized a “sanitation army” of 2,000 workers to sweep New York’s notoriously dirty streets and sidewalks.
Dressed in white uniforms associating them with cleanliness, these workers were labelled the “White Wings.” His actions put urban hygiene high on the agenda as a means of fighting recurring epidemics and improving public health. Waring finally brought an end to the “piggery wars” that had been raging in the metropolis for some considerable time.
There were no pigs in America before Columbus. They were brought over on the latter’s second visit in 1493. The Iberian hog that accompanied the conquistadors adapted rapidly to its new environment and thrived both in wet lowlands and dry mountain areas. Easy to ship over and prolific once ashore, they supplied explorers with food security.
On his survey of Florida in 1539, Hernando de Soto brought thirteen pigs with him which he used only in case of food emergencies. Three years later he had seven hundred. Dutch settlers in New Netherland followed the Spanish example and transported their own native hogs. Pioneers and pigs were the first inhabitants of New Amsterdam.
Wouter van Twiller succeeded Peter Minuit as the (fourth) Director of New Netherland in 1633 and stayed in the post for five years. His political influence on the development of the colony was insignificant according to historians, but he amassed great personal wealth as an entrepreneur by opening up agricultural land and establishing farms. In 1637 he bought the East River island of Minnehanonck from the Lenape. Known as Roosevelt Island today, Van Twiller used the land to breed pigs and named it Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island).
A decade later Peter Stuyvesant, the son of a Calvinist minister in Friesland, arrived in New Netherland to take over the role of Director-General from Willem Kieft on behalf of the Dutch West India Company. He was instructed to impose order in the remote and sometimes unruly colony where drunkenness and fighting were said to prevail. He immediately issued an edict limiting the sale of alcohol and enforcing strict penalties for violent conduct.
Built in 1625 under supervision of chief engineer Cryn Fredericks, Fort Amsterdam was the administrative headquarters of the colony. In 1650 an intriguing ordinance was passed forbidding animals from running free in the city in order to prevent (further) impairment of the infrastructure. Specific reference was made to the fact that the “decayed fortress, formerly in fair condition, has mostly been trodden down by hogs, goats and sheep.”
In 1653, Stuyvesant ordered the building of a defensive wall to protect the colony. At the time of construction, settlers were used to letting their livestock run free and many hogs foraged in areas close to the wall. Stuyvesant interfered twice, urging owners to keep their pigs away from the site as they inflicted considerable damage.
In the end, all Dutch efforts proved fruitless. When British troops took over New Amsterdam in 1664, the invaders demolished the wall and named the street that ran alongside it Wall Street. In the summer of 1791 twenty-four local brokers began trading shares of stock in the street beneath a sycamore. Legend has it that on May 17th, 1792, the Buttonwood Agreement was signed on the exact same spot as the founding document of the New York Stock Exchange.
The Big Stink
On February 20th, 1657, New Amsterdam’s council attempted to ban the common practice of throwing rubbish, ashes, oyster-shells or dead animals in the street and leave the filth there to be consumed by droves of pigs on the loose.
When the English took over the colony from the Dutch, pigs and goats stayed put. Stuyvesant’s attempts at sanitation had not been put into practice and the state of the colony remained one of muck and squalor. Filth and smell however did not deter newcomers. With the demolition of the wall, the colony expanded northward. Three decades after its founding, the population had more than doubled, reaching some 5,000.
Pollution persisted. The streets of Manhattan were a stinking mass. Inhabitants hurled carcasses and the contents of loaded chamber pots into the street and rivers. Runoff from tanneries where skins were turned into leather flowed into the waters that supplied the shallow wells. The (salty) natural springs and ponds in the region became contaminated with animal and human waste. For some considerable time, access to clean water remained an urgent problem for the city.
Depending on weather conditions, butchers had limited time after slaughter to sell their meat before it became unfit for human consumption and a potential source of pestilence. The penetrating smell of decomposing flesh was everywhere. Swampy New York became the perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, putting public health at risk. Yellow fever struck in 1702, killing twelve percent of the population. Outbreaks of smallpox and measles would follow.
During the first decades of the nineteenth century New York transformed rapidly, thanks in large part to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. Migrants and immigrants swarmed into Manhattan, turning farmland into tenements, shops and factories. Despite urbanization, poor New Yorkers continued to raise pigs. In their struggle for survival, hogs were a crucial commodity. As land to raise them disappeared, the poor let their pigs run loose in the streets.
Pigs adapted seamlessly to urban life. The city provided plenty of feed as trash collection was virtually non-existent. With piles of rotting food and refuse, the streets of New York were one giant trough. During the early 1830s the smell of the city could be sniffed from a distance.
Pigs on Broadway
In 1818, Baron Axel Leonhard Klinckowström visited New York whilst on a three-year study trip on behalf of the Swedish government. He would become an early introducer of the new Republic to his native Swedes as he combined his duties as a diplomat with a passion for water-color painting. During his travels in America he recorded and described views of various places. His book was published in 1824.
One of his images was an 1820 aquatint “Broadway and City Hall in New York.” In a comment that accompanied the print he described Broadway as the city’s “most popular promenade where all the new styles are first seen and admired.” This cityscape looks north along Broadway from St Paul’s Chapel. The third brick townhouse from the corner between Vesey and Barclay Streets was owned by John Jacob Astor.
Having assembled a fortune by establishing a fur trading and opium smuggling connection with China before investing on an unprecedented scale in real estate, he was America’s richest man. Even outside his new house – as is clear from the image – hogs were running free. As Astor was the son of a German butcher, the sight may have had held an element of nostalgia for him. Two decades later, Broadway’s appearance seemed to have deteriorated.
In 1842, Charles Dickens published his American Notes which contained impressions of New York in which pigs play a part. Stepping onto Broadway, he encountered “two portly sows” and a “select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs” among the smartly dressed ladies and a bustle of coaches. Struck by the weird sight of pigs roaming the street, Dickens was captivated by their “vagabond” life style. To the novelist, New York’s wandering pigs were models of self-sufficiency.
Dickens also paid a visit to Varkens Eylandt which, by then, had been renamed Blackwell’s Island. As a social reformer with an interest mental health issues, the author was insistent on visiting the island’s famous “Lunatic Asylum” (opened in 1839) in order to observe its patients and conditions. He was shocked by the abysmal treatment of inmates and cut short his visit.
Pork & Park
Pigs were cheap to keep. Natural foragers, they lived on what they gathered in woods and fields and the garbage they picked up in built up areas. Crucially, hogs provided plenty of meat both for early settlers and for later urban inhabitants alike as every part of the animal was valued and used.
The blood was used in black pudding, the intestines for sausage skins and the fat portions for lard. The shoulders, hams and bacon flanks were salted, cured and stored to last a family through the winter. Pigs moreover were a source of instant liquidity and as such a social safety net (hence the harsh penalties that were handed out for hog stealing). Since pork was a staple of the American diet, butchers were always eager to buy hogs.
Well into the nineteenth century, a barrel of salt pork was a larder item in most households. It signified a measure of a family’s socio-financial well-being. A passage from James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Chainbearer (1845) reads: “I hold a family to be in a desperate way, when the mother can see the bottom of the pork barrel.”
For generations of workers, hog ownership meant self-sustenance and an addition to their wage labour. Hogs offered security of survival, but the dual processes of urbanization and sanitation did not allow for free-running pigs.
Pigs were dirty and dangerous, they spooked horses, caused carriage accidents and blocked the flow of traffic. Their constant rooting destroyed pavements. Hog owners were taken to court and their pigs charged with attacking children, defecating on people, and compelling ladies to watch them copulating in plain view. Pigs were also blamed for spreading disease. Maladies from simple headaches to lethal occurrences of cholera were pinned on them. Prosperous Manhattanites who refused to live with pigs, took their wealth across the bay to Brooklyn, preferring to pay their property taxes elsewhere. The authorities were urged to take control of the swinish situation.
In 1825, the City’s Potter’s Field on the western edge of Manhattan (a mass grave of the poor and of unidentified bodies believed to hold up to 20,000 skeletons) was turned into a parade ground, now known as Washington Square Park. Soon after, local property prices went through the roof. Developers and speculators realized that there were dollars in going green. They started embellishing neighborhoods by integrating parks with railings that excluded the omnipresent pigs, including Union Square, Madison Square and Gramercy Park.
These endeavors were supported by medical experts who argued that recurrent epidemics were caused by “bad air” emanating from rotting vegetation and foul water. Those who upheld this “miasma theory” pressed for clean streets and urban parks. In the battle between park and pork lovers, the latter group lost out as the combined forces of wealth and health proved too strong. New York’s air was to be purified and its pig-stench eliminated. A process of gentrification was set in motion.
The establishment in 1845 of a professional police force helped the authorities to finally enforce laws and regulations. The construction of Central Park in 1857, hailed as the “lungs of the city,” quickened the removal of pigs from the streets. As surrounding properties rose in value, piggeries became a liability, leading to the “Piggery War” of 1859. As a result, pigs were banished and moved on to the shantytowns and hamlets north of 86th Street.
In order to halt a “pig economy” that had sustained the poor for generations, city authorities decided that a thriving cash economy would replace the workers’ dependency on hogs for their subsistence. The mythical formula of economic growth would generate the high wages necessary to buy food. Urban workers became dependent on market forces and employers. The war against pigs shaped the destiny of New York’s working class.
Illustrations, from above: Members of George Waring’s ‘sanitation army’ cleaning the streets of New York; Map of Manhattan in 1664 with Fort Amsterdam on the right; trading shares under a buttonwood tree in Wall Street; Broadway and City Hall, 1824 by Axel Leonhard Klinckowström; New York City’s Potter’s Field, a mass grave of poor and unidentified citizens, turned into Washington Square Gardens in 1825; and Manhattan’s 1859 Piggery War: a battle between police officers and pig owners.