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The Streets of Philadelphia

The Streets of Philadelphia


Problem. In the late eighteenth century city streets were filthy. With no regular trash collection or sewer system and with horses as the primary means of transportation, the streets were filled with household trash and manure. Medric-Louis-Elie Moreau de Saint-Mery, a French visitor to New York City, complained of evil odors and noted that in 1791 the sewage around the wharfs was thought to have caused the epidemic of yellow fever at the time. In smaller towns and villages the problems of public sanitation were not so severe, and in the colonial period hogs had found city streets to be promising grazing areas. But in the case of Philadelphia during the early national period, as it became a crowded city tied more to international commerce than to agriculture, its streets posed a health risk as flies and rats flourished on the garbage.

Commissioners. Philadelphias street commissioners, charged with keeping the public ways clear, hired scavengers to cart away trash and sort through it. It was a dirty job, but scavengers and street sweepers supplemented their salaries by occasionally finding valuables or by reusing what they found in the streets. In January 1783, facing a budget deficit, Philadelphias street commissioners decided to economize. They would find farmers in the surrounding rural areas to cart away manure and other trash. The farmers, the commissioners believed, would benefit by getting free manure, and the city would benefit by having its streets cleaned for free.

Failure. The plan did not work. Unlike the scavengers, the farmers did not clean the streets regularly. By August,

Philadelphias citizens were disgusted with the dead cats and dogs, chickens, and garbage from the marketplace. One newspaper printed a dialogue between a dead dog and cat lying in the gutter, discussing the condition of the street and the probable fate of the street commissioners. In 1784 the street commissioners abandoned the idea of allowing farmers to clean the streets in exchange for free manure and resumed the practice of paying scavengers to cart away the citys trash.


Merrill Jensen, The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 17811789 (New York: Knopf, 1950).

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