How the Automobile Freed Us from the Tyranny of Horses

By: Ryan McMaken

Thanks to the automobile, Americans live in an age of extremely inexpensive transportation, by historical measures. 

In the United States in 2015, there was approximately one motor vehicle per 1.21 people. With the exception of the small, wealthy city states of San Marino and Monaco, the United States employs more motor vehicles than any other country. 

Even if we make similar calculations using just “passenger cars,” the number of vehicles per person remains quite high: fewer than 2.3 people per passenger car. 

People who don’t like automobiles tell us this is a symptom of bad urban planning and a dysfunctional American obsession with cars. This may or may not be the case, but the number of automobiles is also a function of a society’s wealth. 

It’s not a mere coincidence that Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein — countries with some of the world ‘s highest levels of wealth and income — also have the largest numbers of vehicles per capita. 

We can also see this reflected in American use of motor vehicles over time. 

In 1960, there was one motor vehicle in the US per 2.4 people. By 1985, that number of people per vehicle had dropped to 1.3, and 30 years after that, was down to 1.21. In times of recession, total vehicles tend to stall — reflecting the connection to economic conditions. As with median income, total vehicles per capita has moved little since 2001, and as of 2015, total vehicles per capita had still not returned to the 2008 peak level of one vehicle per 1.19 people.1

Many More Cars than Horses Per Capita 

If we look at automobile ownership a century ago, when the age of the automobile was just beginning, the number of vehicles per capita was, not surprisingly, much lower. According to K.H. Schaeffer and Ellitt Sclar, “During the 1910s” the total number of vehicles “multiplied from 5 to 75 vehicles per 1,000 population.” That is, the number increased from one vehicle per 200 people to one per 13 people in 1920. Fifty years later, in 1970, total vehicles had risen to one vehicle per 1.8 Americans.2 

Americans who get most of their information about The Olden Days from movies and television may have incorrect impressions about transportation in the United States during the nineteenth century. 

In popular culture, of course, horses are relatively inexpensive, abundant, and present when necessary. They were everywhere, and ordinary people could afford them.

The data suggests, however, that they were never nearly as abundant as motor vehicles became in the twentieth century.

It has been estimated that in 1850, the total number of horses and mules in America totaled 1 per 4.75 people. Moreover, more than one horse was often necessary to haul any sort of heavy vehicle, so the actual number of available carriages, carts, and other vehicles was actually lower than the number of horses — which generally carry a single passenger by themselves.  This period also may reflect a period of high demand since in 1850, the effects of locomotives had not yet broadly impacted the need for animal power.3

In spite of the growth of locomotives though, by 1907, the number of horses had expanded to 1 horse per 3.66 people. This occurred in spite of the growth of railroads since a higher standard of living — which had been growing throughout the late nineteenth century — also brought with it a demand for more personal transport.4 

Apparently, on a per capita basis, horse use never even rivaled that of what we saw for cars by the middle of the twentieth century. 

Why Americans So Happily Ditched Their Horses 

The horse population peaked in 1915, and then went into decline, even as the American population of humans continued to grow rapidly. 

Americans, it seemed, happily flocked to the automobile. for many of them, horse ownership had never been quite ideal.

Historians often point to a main problem of horses being the smell and the sheer amount of manure that appeared on city streets — often said to have been shin-deep. That’s all true enough. 

But a larger problem for the average consumer was that using a horse for personal transport was also very expensive in terms of cash. 

In a recent article, I discussed the problem of parking spaces, and touched on the scarcity of land for parking cars, and how “free” parking would likely be far less common in a more-free marketplace. 

Americans, of course, are famous for expecting “free” parking everywhere they go, even to the point of one famous character in popular culture — George Costanza — comparing paid parking to prostitution. Costanza concludes: “Why should I pay, when if I apply myself, maybe I could get it for free?”

In the days of the horse in America, however, free parking was both unwise and rare, and few Americans saw paying for “parking” as a shameful cop-out. Even when it wasn’t in use, a horse owner was always tethered to his horse, either literally or figuratively. 

By “parking” of course, I mean storing one’s horse somewhere while it was not in use. 

At home, a horse owner could always store a horse in the corral or barn. This in itself was costly since horses constantly needed feed and water. Water in troughs froze solid in the winter and needed to be broken up. In a hot summer, a horse was likely to need shade. Someone might steal the horse if left unattended. 

Needless to say, this was nothing like today in which one can often leave a car unattended for lengthy periods and expect it to be left alone and be no worse for wear. 

The answer to this problem with horses, not surprisingly, was answered by the marketplace: by the livery stable. 

The Livery Stable: A Nineteenth-Century Parking Garage

In the age of horses, anyone who traveled by horse into a town city, and had to leave a horse alone for anything more than a few minutes, had to leave it with someone who could watch it, feed it, and water it. 

Livery stables were happy to provide these services — for a fee. These stables were also happy to rent out horses and carriages. Also for a fee. 

How large of a fee? In booming areas, it seems, fees could be quite enormous. In an age where people were often earning around eleven dollars per month, a livery fee for parking a horse could be 50 cents per day. Livery owners were known to put liens on horses in case customers didn’t pay up.5 

But even in areas where prices were more reasonable, evidence suggests that livery stables were lucrative for the owners — that is, they were expensive for patrons. 

This is partially demonstrated in the fact that even industrious people from the lower socio-economic levels of society could successfully run a livery stable. Historian Juliet Walker notes that in antebellum Virginia, former slaves could go into the livery business — and do quite well at it: 

With few exceptions, most livery owners had been slaves themselves and, once free, they either purchased or employed hired slaves to groom horses, clean stables, and drive conveyances. In Virginia, Edmund Kean, a former slave who bought his freedom in 1849, owned three slaves by 1851 whom he employed in his livery business. By 1860 he owned ten slaves…In Virginia’s Prince Edward County, Booker Jackson gave up his profitable shoemaking business to establish a livery stable. By 1859, in addition to three vehicles and four horses, he owned two slaves; one year later he owned “three slaves, four vehicles and five horses.” … Robert Clark, who purchased his freedom with money earned while working as a hotel waiter, immediately opened a livery stable. Before 1860 he owned both real and personal property valued at $9,000 and had “continually on hand for hire horses, buggies and carriages, open or closed.”

In other places, livery stable owners attempted to form cartels, as noted by the Pittsburgh Business Directory which lauded an entrepreneur who “was one of the first undertakers in the city to breakup the monopoly of the livery-stable keepers & bring the price of carriages to funerals down to the reasonable amount of $3.00”

Contrary to the modern idea that most any American living outside a large city had a horse, the widespread nature of the rental-horse economy found at livery stables also reminds us that ownership of personal transportation was either unattainable or not worth the trouble to a great many Americans. Horses and carriages had to be rented for funerals, for moving equipment and personal belongings, and other necessities such as courting women:

Livery stable proprietors often kept a pair of high-stepping spotted ponies for use of the young men “going sparking” and girls who got rides behind them were the envy of their less fortunate associates.”

Indeed, the livery stables became so central to daily life that they rivaled the saloons as the central social institution of town. As described in a history of Fresno County, California

the livery stable was the last remnant of the state coach period. It preserved for three-quarters of a century in the United States the traditions of the inn. In the village and smaller town it was the resort of the masculine gossip and te small politician. the be received into the ‘barn crowd’ was a distinction; to be able to maintain one’s place in it was to be able to be considered some day for something in the county convention. The livery stable was the center of democracy. Every man of any consequence dropped into it and left his opinion with the livery man.

Another historian writes that in Glendive, Montana, it was at a livery stable “that a Catholic priest held the first public mass in Glendive in 1882.” And an eyewitness from Glendive recounts that the livery was “the first place where I ever saw a real musical performed.”

The centrality of the livery stable as an institution helps to illustrate the importance of “paid parking” for horses during the period.

To the modern mind, though, it would be absurd to make a parking garage into a central social institution in any town. How “wasteful” to spend so much time and expense attending to one’s mode of transportation!

For a modern American, paying to store an automobile is viewed at best as an annoyance, and at worst as an injustice. In the nineteenth century, however, it was just another sizable expense that came with the need for personal transportation. 

Cars: Cheap and Easy

This look at livery stables one small case study, but it helps to illustrate the expense and relative rarity of private ownership of horses for personal transportation before the age of the automobile. 

For a great many Americans in the nineteenth century, walking was still the only affordable means of transportation. But even for those who could afford a horse for such purposes, other expenses had to be kept very low in order to ensure the money was available for the care, maintenance, and replacement of horses. Horses could be stolen, be crippled or killed by disease, or killed in an accident. Careful maintenance could rarely be “blown off” without unpleasant  consequences. Those who couldn’t afford this extra expense were forced to live within walking distance of necessaries, and this came with its own costs. 

In other words, life in the nineteenth century was a costly hassle, and our ancestors likely did their share of complaining. 

Modern haters of the automobile may lament that so many Americans feel the need to own an automobile. They may note the cost of owning, maintaining,  and insuring a car. A great many Americans of the nineteenth century endured similar problems. But, given that more Americans have far more access to personal transportation today than was the case in the past, it may not be quite as pricey in real terms as we suspect. 

  • 1. I have made these calculations using Census population data and information from the US Department of Transportation:
  • 2. Or one passenger car per 2.3 Americans. 
  • 3. This 1850 statistic shows up in two separate reports from automobile industry publications in 1907. 
  • 4. The 1850 numbers I have not been able to verify separate from the report linked. However, the 1907 calculation does roughly match up with Census data and data published by the Humane Society. 
  • 5. See: “Livery Stables in the West” by Marshall Trimble:

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