10 Relics From the Horse-Powered City Hiding in Plain Sight

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The commerce and transportation of modern cities initially relied on the horse. While there are still places where they serve a vital role, on the whole the horse has disappeared from the urban environment as cars, trains, subways, and other hoofless transportation took over in the 20th century. Look closely enough, though, and you can still find reminders of this equine past in our infrastructure.

1. STABLES

Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC by 2.0

A city powered by horses needs shelters for them to rest and sleep. Stables and carriage houses thus once lined the streets, their arched doorways still recognizable even when converted into homes and businesses. Mews all over London still have rows of stables, often dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, which are almost entirely now housing. According to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, in just New York City, there were around 4500 stables by the beginning of the 20th century.

Artists were sometimes the first to take over stables after the horses had gone, appreciating their roomy floorplans. MacDougal Alley in Manhattan, for example, changed over from horses to sculptor and painter residents in the Gilded Age. Elsewhere, sculptures of horse heads still crane their necks from former stable façades, such as on 19th century stables in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and the 1906 stable for Schlitz brewery in Chicago. 

2. HORSE WALK

Some carriage houses incorporated "horse walks": interior passageways that allowed a horse to walk from the street to a stable. Dense urban areas like New York City still have evidence of these discrete entrances, such as at 7 Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, constructed in 1831, and 336 West 12th Street in the West Village, from the 1850s. Often they just appear as a door alongside the main entrance to the home, wide and tall enough for a horse to slip through.

3. EQUESTRIAN STAIRCASES

Riders' Staircase, Old Royal Palace, Prague. Image credit:Richard Mortel via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Equestrian staircases are most often found in old European cities, built into or alongside castles and other complexes as sloping steps for horses to access upper floors. A 16th century example in Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, for instance, has a "rider's staircase" so knights didn't have to dismount to enter. In Bologna, the town hall contains a huge staircase designed by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante to accommodate carriages.

4. TROUGHS

Horses have to drink, but urban settings rarely have convenient streams with clean water. Organizations concerned with animal welfare—like the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, formed in 1859 in London—spearheaded the construction of troughs with freely available water. Henry Bergh with the ASPCA was particularly involved with installing troughs with fresh water around New York City, and a few are still visible, including a low granite one by the carriage horses that still give tourists rides in Central Park. The trough in Grand Army Plaza is one of the many funded by local Edith Bowdoin, and was rededicated in 2001 at its current site. The troughs weren’t the ASPCA’s only initiative for Manhattan steeds, however: They also offered free showers on the streets and gave out eye-shading straw hats for horses with specially designed ear holes. 

5. FOUNTAINS

Like troughs, horse fountains offered water for city stallions, but fountains were often incredibly elaborate. One with a clock and Shakespeare quotes from the 1880s can still be seen in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The 1919 Gumbel Memorial Fountain in New Orleans is adorned with a dramatic sculpture by Isidore Konti, and the Temperance Fountain in Washington, D.C. has water flowing from the mouths of dolphins, the overflow of which was collected for horse drinking. As that one’s name suggests, many of these doubled as temperance fountains, built to encourage humans to drink water instead of beer. Others were simply donated by animal-loving philanthropists, like advertising agent John Hooper, who died in 1889 and left $10,000 for two fountains "whereat man and beast can drink." The 1894 Hooper Fountain in Manhattan has a monumental column topped with a lantern, with a broad basin below fit for horse muzzles. 

6. AUCTION HOUSES

Horses did not come into the cities through spontaneous generation. Auction houses were a common sight for the horse trade, with large entryways similar in structure to private stables. The grand Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan, for instance, was erected in 1896 as the American Horse Exchange. Artists later converted these as well, including the Beaux-Arts 1904 Van Tassel and Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 126-128 East 13th Street in New York City. After it ceased sales in the 1920s, it was a candy factory and school before artist Frank Stella purchased it in 1978. He moved out in 2005, and it’s now a dance center.

7. HORSE BLOCKS 

Jochen Wolters, Flickr // CC by 2.0

To give carriage passengers and horseback riders a boost, mounting blocks were installed in locations of regular use. Basically just a block of stone or a tiny staircase, a few are still preserved in the sidewalks. London’s Waterloo Place has one from 1830, which, according to its plaque, was placed “by the desire of the Duke of Wellington” (see above). Another of these upping stones is inscribed with the initials "WW" in Camden, New Jersey, just outside the house of none other than poet Walt Whitman.

8. HITCHING POSTS 

Phil Roeder, Flickr // CC by 2.0

Hitching posts weren’t just a Western fantasy for cowboys in saloons—all cities with horses needed convenient tethering points to keep the animals from straying. Often just a pole with a ring, others were more elaborate, like the horse-shaped ones in Brooklyn’s 19th century Green-Wood Cemetery, and in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. You can even find a combo version in Homer, New York, that’s both a hitching post and a mounting step.

9. TETHERING RINGS

iStock

More integrated into the infrastructure than hitching posts but basically serving the same purpose, tethering rings are discreet metal loops embedded in walls, sidewalks, and curbs. They are sometimes ornate, like the one shaped like a dragon in Florence, Italy, that doubles as a sconce (above), but on the whole they are plain. Now mostly obsolete, some have found an unusual afterlife in Portland, Oregon, where they host ephemeral art installations, including tiny horses

10. HORSECAR TRACKS 

Wikimedia // Public Domain

Before there were trolleys and then buses, aboveground transportation often involved the horsecar. Omnibuses were pulled by horses on rails, and these tracks would often transition over to be used by electric cars. The horsecar tracks in Portland, Oregon changed over to electricity in the late 1800s, while the former horsecar tracks in Charlotte, North Carolina were turned electric and began operation in 1891. During the turn of the last century, horses and trolleys would sometimes be riding side-by-side. A photographer in Manhattan caught one of the last horsecars riding the rails in 1917, while the electric trolley raced alongside, and presumably overtook, the fading fixture of transportation.

Jane Austen's Handwritten Letter About a Nightmarish Visit to the Dentist Is Up for Auction

Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

For about $100,000, you could own a tangible reminder that Jane Austen hated going to the dentist, too—even when she wasn’t the patient.

After escorting her three nieces to a dentist named Spence in 1813, Austen was so appalled at the dental practices of the time that she described them to her sister Cassandra in a letter, which could now sell for $80,000 to $120,000 at an auction later this week. Smithsonian reports that the value is so high partially because only 161 of an estimated 3000 letters written by the celebrated author still exist; the rest were destroyed by Austen’s family after her death, possibly to avoid personal matters from leaking to the public.

jane austen letter about the dentist
Bonhams

This letter doesn’t contain anything particularly private, but it does provide some intimate insight into Austen—who famously remained unmarried and childless herself—as a doting aunt and sister.

“The poor Girls & their Teeth!” she wrote. “We were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed and lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all … we heard each of the two sharp hasty screams.”

While Austen doesn’t speculate about whether or not the work on the aforementioned nieces’ teeth was necessary, she definitely had an opinion about Spence’s treatment of her third (and favorite) niece Fanny.

“Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too—& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely … but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischief to parade about Fannys [sic].”

If you think a visit to the dentist is uncomfortable in the age of anesthetics and easily accessible milkshakes, you can imagine that getting teeth filed, filled, and pulled in the early 19th century was a full-fledged nightmare. The main fix for a cavity was simply pulling the tooth out, which the Jane Austen Center explains was often done with a pelican or key, both metal instruments that were braced against the gum and then twisted to tear out the tooth.

In addition to the horrifying dental report, Austen also writes about her mother’s improving health, a visit to a family friend, and a department store shopping trip.

Bonhams will include the letter in their annual Americana and Travel auction in New York on Wednesday, October 23.

Curious to know more about the woman behind Pride and Prejudice? Check out eight intriguing facts here.

[h/t Smithsonian]

12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
iStock.com/traveler1116
  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

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