A cobblestone street in Italy is paved with round stones; some sources say that a "cobble" originally meant a round stone. These look like old cannon balls. Were they put there to keep horses off the plaza or to help them?
When newcomers get off the ferry on Nantucket Island and settle into a car, they are soon shaken up. They're expecting an idyllic entry to the old New England whaling town and tourist center. Instead, they rattle across a rough cobblestone street that will shake the fillings right out of your teeth.
And the islanders like it that way.
Even though they seem slick and tricky for today's horses, "modern", or flat, cobblestoned streets were a godsend to horses. And, as you might suspect, there's a hoof connection that holds this whole story together.
The original cobblestones were rounded river rocks. Take a look at the original Italian cobblestones in the photo: were the stones put there to discourage horses from crossing the plaza, or to help them? How did those stones feel on a horse's frog and sole? Would a bigger foot or a smaller foot have an advantage?
What we call cobblestone streets are actually "Belgian block" streets, or "paver stone" streets. Belgian blocks were used in ballast of sailing ships that arrived in America from Europe; if the blocks were not needed for the return trip, they were off-loaded and used to pave the dock areas. This explains why so many surviving cobblestone streets in America are in coastal cities and river towns. Most of the cobbling was done in the early 1800s.
Please excuse this article for referring to rectangular-cut stone blocks used to pave streets as "cobblestones"; true cobblestones would be round and found in nature.
Nantucket, Massachusetts has the distinction of being a town that actually increased its cobblestoned streets, more than a century after the Belgian blocks stopped arriving. The source may have been Europe (one theory), which proposes that when the empty whaling ships returned from delivering whale oil to European ports, they loaded up with stone for the sandy streets on the island.
Wood-paved streets were tried first, especially in London, as a remedy for the mud, muck, and dust pit known as a city street, but when the wooden pavers were saturated, they exploded because they were packed too closely together to allow for expansion. The street surface also was slippery when wooden, which meant the horses weren't safe in their work.
From a London observer, circa 1880: "Whilst on the subject of animals, I should like once more to draw attention to the terrible suffering which greasy wood pavements entail upon the poor horses. The scene on Ludgate Hill is often heartrending. The poor beasts, struggling madly to gain a foothold on the slippery surface, strain and tremble and sweat, and often seriously injure themselves. It is no uncommon thing for the whole traffic to be stopped by a heavily-laden waggon, which the horse, with the ground slipping from under him, vainly endeavours to drag up the hill. Oaths, kicks, and brutal beatings the poor beast gets; but it never seems to strike any one that a little sand or fine gravel thrown in the morning over these wood pavements would conquer the difficulty...One would imagine they were big share-holders in a joint stock horse-slaughtering company." (Quoted from Horses and Roads, by J.T. Denny)
The New England Architectural Center in Newport, Rhode Island has studied cobblestones--they also recycle the old ones, and sell them to architects. They tell us that, "Our most common reclaimed cobblestone sizes are Medium and Jumbo. A Medium cobblestone ranges from 5 to 9 inches long, 4 to 6 inches deep, 4 to 5 inches wide, and weighs between 12 to 15 pounds. A Jumbo cobblestone ranges from 9 to 14 inches long, 7 to 8 inches deep, 4 to 5 inches wide, and weighs between 20 to 30 pounds."
Look at those dimensions again. The weight varies. The length varies. The depth varies. But the width is the same, whether medium or jumbo.
Why would that be?
Why would that be?
Cobblestones were a uniform width to fit a prescribed distance between the toe calk and inside heel calk of a commercial horse's shoe. Today, paving stones are set close together and mortared in place. In the horse's day, the stones were set in place with a few inches of space all around each paver. This was especially important for a street with any sort of slope.
The spacing of the paver blocks is critical. It is so critical that it was even argued before the United States Supreme Court. US Patent Holder Charles Guidet changed the way the streets of lower Manhattan were paved with his system, and he patented it. But could he defend his patent? In an interesting court decision, the justices said no. He had, in effect, attempted to patent the empty spaces between uniform, hoof-sized cobblestones, set apart with exactly enough distance to accommodate the calks of horseshoes.
Apparently, you can't patent space. The Supreme Court said that was the talent of the artisan who did the work. Had they judged otherwise, we might we walking down Guidet streets and alleys today instead of cobblestoned ones. The right to leave the space for horseshoe calks was given to all stonelayers.
That space left between the paving blocks gave cobblestoned streets another advantage: they didn't freeze and crack like solid-paved streets. No potholes to repair!
The horseman who did not have his horse regularly shod would find the horse struggling to pull a load up a hill, since if a calk was worn, or a removable calk was missing, the horse couldn't grab onto anything.
A note about the shoe in the photograph: this shoe is believed to have been made by Ted Jones, a well-known farrier and authority on railway horses in Manchester, England. He refers to the heels as "turned". A separate aspect of this shoe is that it appears to also be drilled for removable calks, probably for winter conditions.
The rectangular cobblestone paving system changed the way that horseshoes worked. They were no longer just protection or traction. They were a device that encountered and engaged with the ground--ground artificially designed in units prescribed to fit the horse. Horseshoe and stone interacted, and the horse went along. Certainly, horses learned to use their calks to find the spaces between the cobblestones, but this was engineering on the bottom of a horse's foot taken to a new level.
It's easy for anyone who knows about horseshoeing to start waving a red flag at this point. If the paving stones were all of uniform size, that's fine, but all horses do not wear the same size horseshoe. To some extent, the location of the calks can be adjusted or calks can be angled so there is a consistent distance between toe calk and the inside heel calk, but this system is an invitation to an institutionalized system of shoeing the vast majority of city horses with one size and type of shoe, and then fitting the foot to the shoe, instead of fitting a shoe to the foot.
Short of breeding horses with uniform-sized feet, that is how it had to be.
There were other ways to do it: On Cadillac Hill in Akron, Ohio, every fourth row of pavers was raised, to give the horses a traction bar. It was computed based on the length of the average freight horse's stride.
Winter was dangerous for horses and the people who tried to help them once they were down. But the golden age of the horse in the city coincided with the golden age of American capitalism, and business must be conducted. Horses weren't expendable, and the loss of profit when horses were injured or if the streets were too snowy or icy for safe travel, put a lot of pressure on drivers and horses.
There was a need to find a way to keep the fleet of freight, cab and carriage horses on their feet and moving. There was a concern, loudly voiced by the activist humane organizations, against the cruelty of working horses in dangerous weather. And there was a response, as you'll read in this series of articles, from horseshoers across the nation who invented hundreds of devices, shoes, and boots to stabilize horses on city streets.
When an announcement in the National Humane Review announced a prize of $2500 to anyone who could invent a safe horseshoe or device to help horses on winter streets, the horseshoers started to file patents.
None of those devices, shoes and boots are in use today, with the exception of frost nails. Maybe they should be. But the ingenuity to solve a problem and the desire to help the horse were remarkable and inspiring, as you'll see.
More in the Hoof Blog 2015 series on winter traction:
- Introduction to Winter Traction: Finding the Roots of Today's Safety and Fun Under Foot in Snow and Ice
- Chain Reaction Traction: Overshoes Took the Farrier Out of the Equation (and the Sale) 100 Years Ago
- Traction History: Non-Skid Over-Shoes Were the Humane Society's Gift to the Horses of New York City
- Nantucket Historical Association on the origin of cobblestones on the island
- United States Supreme Court. 1881. Guidet V. City of Brooklyn, 105 U.S. 550
- Denny, J.T. (a.k.a. "Free Lance") (1881) Horses and roads, how to keep a horse sound on his legs (3rd ed.). London: Longmans, Green and Company.
- Excavating Cobblestones by Mark Treskon, 2006 (academic paper, New York University)
- Holden, B. (1985) The Long Haul: The Life and Times of the Railway Horse. London: J.A. Allen
Follow Hoofcare + Lameness on Twitter: @HoofcareJournal
Read this blog's headlines on the Hoofcare + Lameness Facebook Page
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any direct compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned, other than Hoofcare Publishing. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.