The hogs that created America’s first urban working class

The hogs that created America’s first urban working class
Image: Reuters/Daniel Acker
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On his first visit to America in 1842, Charles Dickens found plenty to ridicule—Americans’ obsession with money, their manners, their tobacco chewing. But the biggest target of Dickens’ humor was New Yorkers. Specifically, their pigs.

Stepping onto Broadway, New York’s biggest commercial thoroughfare, Dickens encountered “two portly sows” and “a select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs” among the brightly dressed ladies and a bustle of coaches. Even more than this strange sight of pigs roaming the city’s streets, Dickens was captivated by the free and easy swine lifestyle—a “roving, gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life.” Scavenging curbside trash in droves, New York’s wandering pigs were on “equal, if not superior footing” with humans—a model of self-sufficiency.

“They are never attended upon, or fed, or driven, or caught, but are thrown upon their own resources in early life, and become preternaturally knowing in consequence,” remarked Dickens in American Notes. “Every pig knows where he lives, much better than anybody could tell him. At this hour, just as evening is closing in, you will see them roaming towards bed by scores, eating their way to the last.”

He probably wasn’t exaggerating much. Though it’s hard to know exact numbers because no one was counting, during pig-ownership’s peak years, in the early 1820s, some 20,000 hogs roamed the streets of Manhattan, says Catherine McNeur, professor at Portland State University and author of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. That works out to one hog per every five humans—slightly higher than the ratio of cars owned by Manhattan residents today (pdf).

This problem that so amused Dickens rankled New York’s leaders, real estate developers, and wealthier residents, who feared that parading pigs deterred tourists and investors. Pigs weren’t just dirty; they were also dangerous, disrupting traffic and occasionally threatening children, and were thought to spread disease. Well-heeled Manhattanites were fleeing across the bay to Brooklyn—grim tidings for a city that funded itself primarily through property taxes, says McNeur.

So why did pigs rule Manhattan for the first half of the 19th century—and what finally led the city to shed its swine?

The answers have to do with the alignment of interests of the city’s government and wealthier New Yorkers in strengthening bureaucracy and driving up property values, at the expense of poorer residents who owned the pigs. In this seemingly obscure history of New York’s pig woes lies the beginnings of conflicts America still grapples with today, such as gentrification, the extent of the government’s responsibility to its citizens, and the tenuous economic security of poor and working class Americans.

A social safety net made of bacon

More than America’s other major trade hubs, New York was a city in seismic transition, thanks in large part to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. People from all over America and Europe swarmed into Manhattan, turning farmland and field into shophouses, tenements, and factories. Despite this urbanization,  non-wealthy New Yorkers continued to raise hogs. In fact hogs were a crucial commodity in this teeming metropolis, reflecting the turbulent economic and social upheaval that accompanied this change.

As land to raise hogs disappeared, New York’s working folk came upon a simple solution: let the pigs loose on the city’s streets. There was good reason to do this.

Unlike chickens, cows, or sheep, pigs fit seamlessly into New York’s fast-urbanizing ecosystem. Hogs in general convert feed into meat more efficiently than other common livestock. And the city provided plenty of it; for much of the 19th century, even in wealthier neighborhoods, trash collection was virtually nonexistent. Piled with spoiled food, offal, and vegetal refuse, the streets of New York were one giant trough. Their detractors called pigs “walking sewers.” More accurately, they were self-sufficient protein machines that cost next to nothing to raise.

The city’s new and growing wealth was spread unevenly, and even in good times, laborers and artisans—many of them African-Americans and European immigrants—struggled to find regular work and decent wages, leaving them forever teetering on the brink of poverty.

For these families, pigs were a crucial social safety net—an insurance policy that paid out in bacon. A family short on food could always slaughter one of its hogs; preserved by curing or smoking, the meat could feed a household for a long time. Plus, pigs were a source of instant liquidity for a cash-poor populace. Since pork was a staple of the American diet, butchers were always eager to buy hogs.

The case against pigs

For their owners, pigs offered economic security, but there were plenty of reasons to oppose the free-running pig custom. Wandering hogs spooked horses, caused carriage accidents, tripped pedestrians, and blocked traffic. Constant rooting destroyed street pavement. In a major anti-hog court case of the time, the prosecution charged pigs with attacking children, defecating on people, and “compelling” ladies “to view swine copulating in public view.” Pigs made the streets seem dirty, of course, but also diseased, catching the blame for the city’s frequent and lethal spates of cholera (mostly unfairly, it turned out). More banal maladies like headaches were pinned on pigs too.

For decades, pigs stained New York’s image. Many visitors besides Dickens ridiculed New York’s porkers. Tour guide books of the time offered tips to would-be visitors of where to avoid the pigs. Even other Americans looked down on New York since, thanks to tougher enforcement, cleaner streets, and dramatically smaller and slower-growing populations, other American cities were pretty pig-free (with the notable exception of Pittsburgh).

Wealthier Manhattanites were increasingly outraged about sharing their streets with pigs that sullied their city’s good name. Part of the issue was that crowding and disease in the southern reaches of the island were driving wealthier residents into more peripheral neighborhoods where pigs abounded. As class division sharpened, elite criticisms of pigs sometimes were barely veiled slurs against their owners and their supposed filthiness. Take, for instance, the New York Times article describing “shanties in which the pigs and the Patricks lie down together while little ones of Celtic and swinish origin lie miscellaneously, with billy-goats here and there interspersed.”

But notions of the purpose of public space were changing too. While pig-owners likely saw the urban commons as fair game for private gain—if they thought much about it at all—wealthier folks and city leaders were developing a different vision.

Pork vs. parks

In the 1820s, the city of New York bought a potter’s field on the western edge of Manhattan, turning it into a military parade ground (that these days is known as Washington Square Park), a public space where volunteer militia could train. Suddenly, property values around the square shot up. Developers, speculators, and wealthy residents began spiffing up neighborhoods by chiseling tiny parks into the street grid—Union Square, Madison Square, Gramercy Park, for instance. Home prices climbed there too.

The park craze, McNeur emphasizes, was motivated by health as well as wealth. The medical experts of the day believed disease to come from miasmas, as dank, stinky air was known. Clearing parks and gentrifying neighborhoods helped cleanse the air of pig-stench. The city increasingly split between pro-pork and pro-park.

The pig-fan masses had less political clout than their richer Manhattanite opponents. (An imbalance worsened by an 1821 revision to the state constitution revoked voting rights from African-American residents, many of whom owned hogs or supported the swine status quo.) As a result, over the first half of the 1800s, the city banned pigs repeatedly. But though the city’s leaders agreed with the upper-class New Yorkers, the government itself was too poorly funded and organized to do much about it. What pig owners lacked in political representation, they made up for in numbers—and vehemence. Every time the city sent hog-catchers into poor neighborhoods, riots erupted, and assault of fists and spoiled vegetables that followed sent them fleeing empty-handed.

Unfortunately for the pro-pig masses, the drive to make a “modern” metropolis was already gathering steam. Turning on notions of a market economy and strong government bureaucracy, this vision left no room  for porcine—or poor Manhattanite—self-sufficiency.

The pigless metropolis

One critical step was empowering the government to enforce laws. In 1845, the city finally established a professional police force. So when a nasty cholera epidemic swept the island in 1849—whipping up fears that the pigs were spreading the sickness—the police rounded up thousands of hogs and drove them north of the city. The construction of Central Park—a beacon of healthfulness hailed as “the lungs of the city”—in 1857 forced a lot of pigs even further north. By 1860, pigs were banished to the shantytowns and sleepy hamlets north of 86th Street.

Climbing real estate values was a crucial part of the equation. In order to provide services, the city needed better funding—and property prices buoyed that effort. While the elimination of pigs in the lower parts of Manhattan helped improve home values, the building of Central Park pushed gentrification into the city’s northern reaches. With piggeries driven out and the stink lifted, real estate around Central Park’s perimeter soared in value, boosting property tax revenues for the city.

An early and enduring feature of the hog debate was the idea that instead of hogs cleaning the streets, people should be doing the job—and the government should pay them. Implicit in this is the belief in government’s responsibility to protect public health by keeping the city clean. This vision came to fruition during the latter half of the 19th century, as the city invested taxpayer dollars in large-scale projects to clean water and curb epidemics, says McNeur. These efforts, which wouldn’t have been possible without government initiative, dramatically improved people’s health and quality of life.

This “jobs not hogs” vision also signaled a shift in how the city’s leaders viewed residents’ relationship to the market, notes Hendrik Hartog, history professor at Princeton University. The theme reflected a vision of “a city whose workers will be entirely dependent on a cash economy for their subsistence,” he wrote in a 1985 article in the Wisconsin Law Review (pdf, p.6). Having long lost access to land to grow crops and vegetables, the poor now lost their last source of food—and cash—that was not dependent on their labor. So how would they feed themselves? The city’s leaders probably assumed that economic growth would generate the jobs and wages necessary to buy food. However, Hartog notes, “a working class without its pigs would be that much more dependent on the market and employers.”

Hog ownership was the last vestige of economic self-sufficiency—a way of living that protected families from the market economy’s violent swings. It gave them a modicum of control over the value of their work by providing an alternative or supplement to wage labor. As Manhattan’s pigs vanished, a vast stratum of people emerged whose daily meals were dependent on what government and private companies chose to pay them. New York’s leaders might have thought they were kicking cholera, boosting tax revenues, and dodging more bad PR. But by getting rid of the city’s pigs, they also happened to make New York the home of America’s first urban working class. As McNeur puts it, “They suddenly had to make ends meet or move to New Jersey.”