The Transport Crisis in Paris 1900-14: an Unlikely-Sounding Problem

Rue de Rivoli, Paris, around 1900, showing horse-drawn traffic. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons,_um_1900,_Les_anciennes_rues_de_Paris.jpg

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

L’Avenue des Champs-Elysées in around 1905. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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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Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2019. All rights reserved.

Published by Vanessa in France

We moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I'm fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs. I also write historical novels and short stories.

4 thoughts on “The Transport Crisis in Paris 1900-14: an Unlikely-Sounding Problem

  1. My dad could remember the problems caused by horse manure in the streets! There were still plenty of horses around when he was growing up in the early 1920s. Fascinating blog, as ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can remember the rag and bone man coming along our street with a horse and cart in the early 1960s – real Steptoe & Son stuff! Horses gradually got pushed out of the main cities, but hung on in smaller towns for a long time.


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