Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why Horses and Bicycles Never Mixed Well

Veterinarians and farriers shared a hatred for bicycles and bicyclists in the 19th century.

Kirkpatrick MacMillan, a 19th centuary Scottish blacksmith from the border county of Dumfries, is credited with the invention of the two-wheeled rear-propelled bicycle.

MacMillan’s first bicycle was made of wood and had iron wheels. But it didn’t make him popular with other smiths.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, there were anti-bicycle protests, with farriers leading the protest line. Bicycles frightened horses they said, but in reality, the problems opened by bicycles were worrisome on another level: they provided inexpensive transportation that replaced horses and also caused a drop in value of saddle horses. And they were ridden by "dandies", the precursor of today's metrosexual male, who demanded smoother manmade roads that would make the automobile a more viable option.

An interesting twist of urban history is the role that the railroads played in the horse populations and value of horses in urban society. If farriers hated bicycles, they loved railroads. Every city needed an army of freight horses to serve the docks and railway yards. Every store and factory relied on horses to get their goods into the hands of customers or onto waiting ships or trains. Horses pulled the street cars, the hearses and the snowplows.

Both farriers and veterinarians felt the pinch caused by bicycles. In 1850, only 46 people in the United States census said that they were "veterinarians"; and 20 of them lived in New York City. By 1910, more than 11,000 veterinary surgeons practiced primarily urban equine medicine in the USA. And they weren't pleased about the popularity of bicycles.

Oddly, the popularity of the bicycle is benchmarked as heralding the migration of veterinarians into specialization in species other than horses. In 1897, an article in the American Veterinary Review claimed that horse values had dropped so sharply because of bicycles that owners were letting horses die rather than seek treatment.

Resentment toward the bicycle was shared by both vets and farriers. In this 19th century illustration kindly on loan from Scotland’s Wellcome Library, you see a veterinary surgeon and farrier have just smashed a bicycle and the vet is dosing the dandy cyclist. Double-click on the image to view it at a larger size.

Statistics quoted in this article are from the interesting new book The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the 19th Century by Clay McShane and Joel Tarr. The authors have created a trove of facts and figures about the role played by horses in urban life.