The hogs that created America’s first urban working class


by Gwynn Guilford, Quartz

July 16, 2017


On his first visit to America in 1842, Charles Dickens found plenty to ridicule—America’s money obsession, their manners, their tobacco chewing habits. But the biggest target of Dickens’ humor was New Yorkers. Specifically, their pigs.


Stepping onto Broadway, New York’s biggest commercial thoroughfare, Dickens encountered “two portly sows” and “a select party of half-a-dozen gentlemen hogs” among the brightly dressed ladies and a bustle of coaches. Even more than this strange sight of pigs roaming the city’s streets, Dickens was captivated by the free and easy swine lifestyle—a “roving, gentlemanly, vagabond kind of life.” Scavenging curbside trash in droves, New York’s wandering pigs were on “equal, if not superior footing” with humans—a model of self-sufficiency.


“They are never attended upon, or fed, or driven, or caught, but are thrown upon their own resources in early life, and become preternaturally knowing in consequence,” remarked Dickens in American Notes. “Every pig knows where he lives, much better than anybody could tell him. At this hour, just as evening is closing in, you will see them roaming towards bed by scores, eating their way to the last.”


He probably wasn’t much exaggerating. Though it’s hard to know exact numbers because no one was counting, during pig-ownership’s peak years, in the early 1820s, some 20,000 hogs roamed the streets of Manhattan, says Catherine McNeur, professor at Portland State University and author of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City. That works out to one hog per every five humans—about the ratio of cars to Manhattan residents today.


This problem that so amused Dickens rankled New York’s leaders, real estate developers, and wealthier residents, who feared that parading pigs deterred tourists and investors. Pigs weren’t just dirty; they were also dangerous, disrupting traffic and occasionally threatening children, and were thought to spread disease. Well-heeled Manhattanites were fleeing across the bay to Brooklyn—grim tidings for a city that funded itself primarily through property taxes, says McNeur.


So why did pigs rule Manhattan for the first half of the 19th century—and what finally led the city to shed its swine?


The answers have to do with the alignment of interests of the city’s government and wealthier New Yorkers in strengthening bureaucracy and driving up property values, at the expense of poorer residents who owned the pigs. In this seemingly obscure history of New York’s pig woes lies the beginnings of conflicts America still grapples with today, such as gentrification, the extent of the government’s responsibility to its citizens, and the tenuous economic security of poor and working class Americans.


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