Historians Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur help BackStory producer Kelly Jones tell the story of the thousands of free-range pigs who managed New York’s waste in the 1800s.
BRIAN: Today on the show, we’re looking at how Americans have dealt with their trash. Take New York City. These days the Big Apple alone produces as much as 12,000 tons of waste a day. Trucks, barges, and trains ship most of this trash to landfills as far away as South Carolina.
PETER: 200 years ago, long before curbside pickup was the thing, the usual way of managing trash in New York was well, pretty unusual by today’s standards. BackStory producer Kelly Jones has this story about what that method was and why it got snuffed out.
BRETT MIZELLE: The sidewalks of New York in the 19th century would have been really disgusting.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: Oh, it was filthy.
KELLY JONES: These are historians Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur. They say that 19th century New York was filthy because trash was mostly organic, and people just chucked it into the street to rot.
BRETT MIZELLE: So for example, if you’d bought meat somewhere, it would be wrapped in paper. So you would have bones and scraps and offal from processing and cooking that meat at home. You’d also have the paper that that was wrapped in. You would have the leftover foods that you might throw away that were not edible.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: You know, watermelon rinds and fish bones and chicken bones. And then the random carcasses of animals that were in the city that just died on the streets, like a horse.
BRETT MIZELLE: You’d also have human waste. In a lot of the neighborhoods of New York waste was just tossed out into the street ’cause there’s really no organized system of sanitation early on in New York history.
KELLY JONES: There wasn’t an organized system of sanitation. But there was a system of sorts. And it was manned by a team of pigs. Free range pigs.
Pigs eat pretty much anything organic. Even bones, even human waste. So they were turned loose to clean up the garbage and get fat on New York trash.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And I should note, these aren’t feral pigs. They’re owned by mostly poor New Yorkers. Also by butchers too who would set them out ’cause basically they were getting free meat that was being generated from the city’s waste. They were turning waste into protein.
KELLY JONES: In the early 19th century, New York was mostly concentrated south of what’s now Central Park, and the pigs roamed everywhere. And what’s unbelievable is just how many pigs there were.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: In around 1820, I’ve found an estimate that there was about 20,000 pigs. Which is roughly about one pig for every five New Yorkers.
KELLY JONES: 20,000 pigs in the city! And these weren’t pink cuddly farm piggies.
BRETT MIZELLE: Right. These pigs are not like the pigs you would see in a movie like Babe. These pigs are bristly, kind of making a living as best they can. You wouldn’t see too many fat lazy pigs in New York City.
KELLY JONES: City pigs took no guff. And they were pretty big, ranging from 100 to 300 pounds.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: Sometimes horses would bump up into them and there’d be accidents because of the pigs. Pigs would also bully pedestrians around. So people would get knocked over, knocked around.
BRETT MIZELLE: Yeah, they just don’t care. I mean, my sense from the accounts I’ve read of pigs in New York in the 19th century is that they don’t care if you’re in their way or not. They’re going to go do their thing. It’s probably a pretty good life, actually.
KELLY JONES: But elite New Yorkers didn’t care if the pigs were happy. They were conscious that free range pigs made New York look pretty backward. European visitors wrote accounts of urban American life and they made fun of the pigs. The most famous example came from Charles Dickens.
CHARLES DICKENS: Here is a solitary swine lounging homeward by himself. He is, in every respect, a Republican pig. Going wherever he pleases and mingling with the best society on an equal, if not superior footing.
Sometimes indeed, you may see his small eye twinkling on a slaughtered friend whose carcass garnishes a butcher’s doorpost. But he grunts out “Such is life. All flesh is pork,” buries his nose in the mire again and waddles down the gutter, comforting himself with the reflection that there is one snout the less to anticipate stray cabbage stalks at any rate.
KELLY JONES: Those Republican pigs, said elites, had to go. Anti-Hoggites, as they were called, wrote petitions to the city government demanding the pigs’ removal.
The backlash from pro-Hoggites was swift. The pigs were a reliable source of food for poor, mostly immigrant New Yorkers, who worried that if the pigs went, they would go too.
BRETT MIZELLE: And so there’s a series of riots– 1821, 1825, 1826, 1832– when the city is fine tuning its legislation about tracking down and controlling these pigs. And people respond with literal violence. They literally attack these animal collection officers. They overturn the carts. They liberate the pigs.
KELLY JONES: It took almost 20 years following that 1832 riot to persuade pro-Hoggites to let the pigs go. They came to believe, as the anti-Hoggites did, that because pigs ate trash, they were naturally dirty and even diseased.
Before germ theory, Americans believed that bad smells could transmit disease. Pigs, because they smell, were scapegoats for a series of cholera epidemics that swept through the city.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And that’s actually how the pigs ended up getting off the streets of the city. The big 1849 epidemic, there was finally enough panic behind the city’s sanitation problems that they were able to remove the pigs.
KELLY JONES: By June of 1849, collection officers corralled between 5,000 and 6,000 pigs and moved them to piggeries or hog towns, consolidated pens, and slaughterhouses. Anyone found keeping pigs in secret faced stiff fines.
The anti-Hoggites got their wish. But in their intense focus on pigs as a problem, they lost sight of pigs as a garbage solution. And that turned out to be a profoundly messy mistake.
BRETT MIZELLE: All of a sudden when the pigs are gone, there’s like, oh crap. Pardon the language, but you’ve got to figure out what to do with all of this stuff left in the streets that you used to have animals taking care of.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: And so the city decided that the only thing that they could do with all this extra offal and all this animal waste was to throw it in the river. And they throw it in the Hudson River with the expectation that it would all float out to sea and that would be it, and out of sight, out of mind.
But it didn’t actually go anywhere. It stayed put it. And they were all of these horse carcasses especially, bouncing in the river.
KELLY JONES: Once again, elite New Yorkers worried about foreign judgement. In 1853, the city prepared to host a World’s Fair. It was going to be really awful to have a bunch of tourists descend on the city ready to see the sights only to be treated to a river of garbage and dead rotting horses. So they found the obvious fix.
CATHERINE MCNEUR: They hired all these men to go swimming in among the carcasses and attach weights to them so that they would be pulled down to the bottom of the river floor.
KELLY JONES: It took another 40 years, but in the 1890s the city finally found replacements for the pigs. An army of men who would sweep the streets and collect trash daily. But the question remained, what to do with the trash?
One by one, modern concerns about public health and the environment limited their options. In 1934 it became illegal to dump household trash in the ocean. In the late 20th century, incinerators shut down in the face of new emissions regulations. And in 2001, the last landfill in the city closed its gates.
These days, New York trash is shipped to landfills and processing centers up and down the East coast. But for current mayor Bill de Blasio, the key question isn’t where should the trash go, but rather how can we stem the tide? He’s even talking about compost pickup for household organics. No word yet from Mayor de Blasio on whether sanitary pigs could be commissioned to lend a snout.
BRIAN: That was Kelly Jones, one of our producers. Helping her tell that story were historians Brett Mizelle, author of Pig, and Catherine McNeur, author of Taming Manhattan– Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City.