How street dirt can change the world

Historical fiction, like any genre of fiction, relies on a solid, engaging storyline, but it’s just as important to get the details right.  Flub those and you’ll quickly lose credibility with readers.  Readers seek out historical fiction to escape into another world, and another time.  Who wouldn’t want to send this coming Monday a few centuries into the future?

I write a local history column for the town newspaper.  While researching a topic,  I came across a fascinating bit of lost lore – the daily act of street watering in the late nineteenth century.   So, say you’re writing a story and it takes place in a New England mill city – Lowell, Massachusetts will do, or even Boston.  A young boy, six or seven years old, races down a city street bordered by tall brick buildings, peopled by horse-drawn carriages and women in leg-of-mutton sleeves.  The men, extravagantly mustachioed, turn to look at your boy.  Some reach up to grasp their bowlers as a cooling breeze arrives from the east.  It’s July 1894.  Your boy, call him a good 19th century name like James, needs butter from the store.  It’s not far; there were far more neighborhood stores then.  He races along.  His mother needs the butter for a cake.  And the cake needs to be made before Father returns from work.

When you read the scene, you’ll expect to see horses, and carriages, and lots of elaborate (and less than sensible) dress; you might even expect to see cobblestone lanes, streetcars, and the occasional newspaper boy hawking the latest editions of the Boston Globe or Lowell Sun.  But would you expect to see a street watering cart?  Probably not.  Street cleaning survives today in the form of street sweepers, slow-moving, tank-like vehicles that present excellent opportunities for modern day drivers to dart around before oncoming traffic closes the chance.  In Victorian-era cities like Boston or Lowell, it took on a whole new importance.  While today’s road dust consists of seasonal waste (like road sand or fallen leaves) and litter, Victorian-era road dust contained a long-forgotten nineteenth-century component – horse waste.

Scollay Square in Boston, 1883

The pollution of Victorian cities was not the auto exhaust so bemoaned today, but quite literally horseshit, or the dried dust from it.  As James runs to the store, any one of the horses that he passes could leave behind as much as 25 pounds of . . . exhaust daily, which dries into the roads, becomes pulverized by hooved, heeled, and wheeled traffic, and gets blown into the airborne dust that finds its way into Victorian homes, clothing, and lungs.  As an aside, the Sanitary Division of Boston’s Street Department towed 30,478 loads of street sweepings to sea in 1894, each load weighing one-and-a-half tons.  Although the street dirt contained house refuse, street litter, and sometimes seasonal waste such as fallen leaves, the largest component was horse excrement.

So, what does this have to do with James‘ run?  As he runs to the store, he dodges foot traffic, horse traffic, and fresh, moist horse deposits along the way.  Add to that the fashionable wheelmen and wheelwomen (now called bicyclists) who have seized upon the decade’s latest trend and are pedaling through the road traffic, and the scene starts to come together.

But, what does the road feel like, under his shoes?  He’s in a city in Massachusetts, which in 1894, most likely means that the road is graveled, or as the more technical terms calls it, macadamed.  This affects the sound of James‘ footfalls against the road as he runs, the feel of the road through his shoes, even the speed at which he can run.

But, there’s another thing to consider.  As James runs along the road, let’s call it Main Street, his shoes crunch across the gravel.  It’s July 1894, one of the hottest, driest summers in memory.  And one of the windiest.  Victorian-era roads are dusty – unless they’re watered.  And Lowell and Boston both have healthy street watering budgets.

So, instead of kicking up dust, James’ footfalls crunch through the moist gravel, and splash through puddles in the road’s uneven surface, as the heat of summer weighs down his clothes in the humidity.  Fashionable young ladies chide him as puddle droplets find and dry into their dresses.  There’s a moist earthy smell in the air.  He takes care as he steps around street car rails and larger stones in the road, slippery perils to both pedestrians and wheelmen.

Some graveled roads are watered by the street watering cart as much as twice daily.  On his trip to the store, he may pass a paved road, a luxury in 19th century Massachusetts.  If James were running along say, Boston’s prestigious Beacon Street, his shoes would clack along freshly washed, freshly swept pavement.  But even there, no less than 16 cross streets intersect his route.  As he passes each graveled cross street, he strides across a strip of dust and mud left by crossing hooves and wheels.

We are all products of our environment.  The setting where you place James as he runs to the store will determine his life experiences, his story, and even his speech.  Perhaps as he runs along Main Street, he’ll notice that there’s a strip of dry gravel on each strip of the road that has not been watered.  Many northeastern cities considered following Chicago’s example, leaving these strips dry to accomodate wheelmen and wheelwomen, who worried about losing a tire (and/or bruising a limb) on a wet, slippery rail or stone.  Perhaps, he’ll find himself on a road in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1894, freshly sprinkled to the dismay of clergymen he passes who passionately complain that any labor on a Sunday desecrates the Sabbath.

There are so many details you can work into any scene.  I see the writing as “the coming together” of the research process.  When you come down to it, the research process can be even more interesting and fun than the writing itself.  But, there is a balance.  Too little detail and the story lacks authenticity – and the ability to engage your reader through the window of time.  Too much detail and the story drowns.  If James takes 25 pages to get to the store and back, your readers, and perhaps even you, will have lost interest in the cake, James‘ father, and any other subplots your larger story explores.  But, a few well-placed details will help take your reader to that place and time you are trying to re-create and succeed in helping him or her push that inevitable Monday morning meeting decades, or even centuries away.

Sources:

  • Annual Report of the Street Department – Boston, Mass. Street Dept., pp 72-74, 1895.
  • “Puritans of Somerville.”  The Boston Daily Globe.  11 May 1897: 1.
  • “Mud or Dust?”  The Boston Daily Globe.  29 June 1897: 2.
  • Report of Commission on Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal, the City of New York, p. 44, 1907.
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