Research sometimes leads one in strange directions and comes up with surprising results. For my latest novel, I had to research the main methods of transport in France between 1897 and 1914. And I discovered something that had never occurred to me.
Traditional forms of transport
Not a lot of surprises in terms of the transport itself. Petrol-driven vehicles were still rare, especially in rural France, although they increased significantly during the period in question. Horse-drawn traffic was the norm on the streets and in the country areas, although cows were often shod and used as beasts of burden, too.
For longer distances, of course, the train’s iron network had spread throughout much of the country during the 19th century, for both passenger and freight transport. As in Britain, the rail network was superseding the canal system.
Paris’ biggest transport problem
But what do you think caused a huge crisis in major cities, including Paris, during these years? Answer: horse manure.
Paris counted around 80,000 horses in 1900. They left their inevitable calling cards behind them, and the streets were sometimes inches thick in dung.
Crossing a Parisian street was a hazardous enterprise. You took your life in your hands owing to the volume of traffic and lack of controls, exacerbated by the appearance of motor vehicles and an unregulated tram system. Pierre Curie, who won the Nobel Prize with his wife, Marie, for their work on radiation, died in 1906 after falling under the wheels of a horse-drawn cart.
Even if you didn’t get knocked down, you had to negotiate the coating of manure and endure the smell. You can only guess at the state of people’s boots and the hems of women’s dresses after being trailed across the street.
Added to this was the public health hazard, especially in the summer, caused by flies attracted by the manure, which then spread diseases. By the end of the 19th century, to address the problem, the city council was mobilising almost 4,000 people early every morning to clear the streets, armed with brooms and shovels.
The car takes over
In 1907, to deal with the traffic problem, the council introduced experimental traffic lanes in the Champs-Elysées, one of Paris’ busiest thoroughfares. Cyclists and horse-drawn vehicles had to keep to the sides, while motor vehicles occupied the centre lane.
A Figaro newspaper correspondent lauded this initiative, noting that the central lanes were clean and dry. He added, “It’s easy to draw the conclusion that, from a hygiene point of view, cars, which give off fumes rapidly absorbed into the air, where they disappear, are greatly preferable to horse-drawn vehicles.”
Even so, the Prefect of Police introduced a law fining motorists if their vehicles belched out smoke. To start with, some thought this unfair, holding to the view that these fumes were not unhealthy since they didn’t persist, unlike the effects of the horse manure. Little did they know.
The motor vehicle rapidly took over from the horse-drawn variety in Paris. In 1898, 288 cars were registered in the city. By 1900 this had more than doubled, to 688. In 1905, this figure had multiplied more than seven times, to 5,056. The last horse-drawn omnibus was withdrawn from service in January 1913. By the time World War I broke out in August 1914, the streets’ coating of horse manure was a fading memory.
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