Here's what New York City looked like before "sanitation engineering"

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the nineteenth century, New York City was full of trash. You can see what that meant in this horrific image of a dead horse rotting in the street where kids were playing. But then there was a revolution that transformed New York into an experiment in urban trash planning.

Anthropologist Robin Nagle has just published a book about NY's sanitation history called Picking Up. She pored over decades of the city's records to piece together how exactly this filthy urban center was cleaned up. Below, you can see a late-nineteenth century sanitation worker in New York, sweeping up trash that would ordinarily have been left outside to decompose.


Over at Collector's Weekly, there's a fascinating profile of Nagle, where she talks about how New York was notoriously filthy even in a nation of filthy cities. But then a new mayor came into office in 1894, and vowed to clean the city up — figuratively and literally. Nagle tells Collector's Weekly:

There was a police corruption scandal in the early 1890s that was so spectacular the Tammany political machine could not control the reaction. So they were kicked out of office in the mayoral elections of 1894. A guy named William Strong took over as mayor, and he swore to appoint people of integrity as his commissioners. For street cleaning, he first reached out to Teddy Roosevelt, who basically said, ‘What, are you nuts? Nobody should do that. That’s an impossible job. I’m not going to do that.’ So Roosevelt took over the police department, which was also in dire need of reform.

Mayor Strong reached out to a Civil War officer, a veteran and a self-titled “sanitary engineer” and a bit of a showman, named George Waring. He asked Waring to take over street cleaning, and they had a conversation that Waring later recounted to the press in which he said, “I’ll do it under one condition – you leave me alone. If you want to fire me, of course, that’s your right. But I will appoint and hire the people I feel are best for the job, not because they’re people you want to do favors for.

The mayor agreed and Waring immediately gave the department a hierarchical, military-type structure that is still in place today. This made people immediately responsible for very clearly defined tasks, like someone was assigned to sweep from this corner to that corner 10 blocks down, and they were going to do it inside these eight hours, and this cart was going to follow and the driver of the cart had these set hours. If there were any problems, the officer immediately in charge of that crew would have to answer for them, and then the officer above had to answer for the larger regional work.

So Waring set that in place, and then he went after the filthiest corners of the whole city, which were the poorest neighborhoods, because wealthier districts had been hiring their own private cleaning companies for years. In the really poor corners of the city, like Five Points, to see anyone from the local government come into the neighborhood was not good news for local residents. They threw bricks at the street cleaners and came out to fight them with sticks. Waring said to his men, “You keep going back. You show them what we’re going to do and you see if you don’t change their hearts.” By the end of two weeks, he had tenements full of ardent fans because he cleaned their neighborhoods.


Waring was also one of the first people to popularize the term "sanitation engineer," and he insisted that the trash collectors in New York wear white to emphasize how clean they were. It's fascinating how basic city services that many of us take for granted were actually the result of complicated political battles in recent history.

Read the rest of this incredible profile, and find out what happened next, at Collector's Weekly