The City is More Than Human
photos courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives and Rainier Valley Historical Society

Chapter 3:
The Rise and Decline of Urban Equine Workers


Because of the nature of horses' work, they had a surer foothold in the city than cows had. Horses could not be eliminated from the city, since it was their labor, and not a product they produced, that humans valued. Even as trucks became a viable option, the economic power of horse owners meant that horses' removal from the city happened largely on the owners' terms, not through direct legislative action. These owners were typically wealthy. While cow ownership was a strategy of both working-class and middle-class Seattleites, it was generally merchants and other wealthy citizens who purchased powerful and elegant horses. And although workers vigorously protested the loss of the cow commons, there was never much of a debate in the corridors of power about cows' ultimate fate. With horses, however, urban elites were more divided. They were a presence on city streets long after cows stopped grazing the urban commons.

(A story from Chapter Three). In 1910, the King County Humane Society and Seattle merchants organized a workhorse parade for the Fourth of July, taking inspiration from similar parades in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere. The purpose, the Humane Society said, was to "promote public interest in the humane treatment and care of our work horses." More than 1,100 horses paraded up Second Avenue that Independence Day, about one-ninth of the city's equine population, hitched to their work wagons, "decked with flowers and beribboned with streamers and bunting," and "proudly stepping to music" of four marching bands. The fine carriage and saddle horses of city elites were absent, as were farmers' horses and the least impressive horses of poorer businesses and peddlers. Still, that day's parade showed the diversity of work that horses did and the many ways humans viewed these creatures: as the profitable tools of specific industries, as symbols of urban pride, and as living beings worthy of humane treatment.

The city's oldest horses came first in the parade, including thirty-three-year-old Bay John of the fire department and thirty-two-year-old Jake of the Pacific Meat Company. Then came horses from the street, water, and light departments; then from bakers and brewers; coal dealers and commission merchants; contractors; department stores, draymen, and dyers and cleaners; express and transfer companies; furniture dealers and grocers; hardware merchants and hay and grain dealers; ice companies, laundries, lumber merchants, meat markets, and mineral water suppliers, followed by local businesses' mules. Next the horses of plumbers and of sand and gravel dealers; wholesale meat packers and wines and liquor dealers; and finally those of a miscellaneous class of businesses. As an essential engine of the city's economic life, horses ensured the delivery of goods and services for all those businesses.