4 Stories of Shit

I often listen to the “Stuff you missed in history class” podcast as I am drifting off to sleep* but the episode I was listening to last night kept me bursting out into laughter.

The Late Victorian Manure Crisis” is about one of my favorite things: logistics!!

I won’t spoiler their excellent description of the problem, but for one thing: 40 foot tall heap of

Where have all the tumbrils gone?

Where have all the tumbrils gone?

manure. That’s just a starter. Listen to it!

When I was at the Viking Museum in Oslo a few years ago, I remember there was some exhibit about how the vikings occasionally took a few  horses with them. Obviously, that’s how horses got to Iceland,** among other places. Viking ships weren’t big. I guess the poo went overboard, but, still. No wonder the vikings were so notably grumpy when they disembarked.

There’s an interesting logistical thing, which is where the need for a thing increases the need for more of the thing, and you get an out of control reaction. David Attenborough wrote about going into the highlands of New Guinea, and how you needed one guy to carry another guy’s supplies, so eventually you needed more guys to carry those guys supplies, etc, until you have some kind of Black/Scholes calculation resulting in weird numbers like that you needed 120 people to carry supplies for 5 englishmen for a week. That affects horse poop removal (if you are using horses to remove poop) as much as it affects panzers driving to Moscow.

BY the way, since the US’ tumbril industry has collapsed thanks to the efforts of Mr Henry Ford, when the revolution comes, we will probably have to parade the ci-devant on Segways, past hipster tricoteurs with 3D printers.

(* Sorry! NPR knocks me out even better.)

(** In Iceland, I once said, “ooh, what a lovely pony” whereupon a rather huge viking-looking guy yelled “THAT’S NOT A PONY IT’S A HORSE!”  So be careful not to mis-designate Icelandic equines. My percheron/suffolk: no, that’s a horse.)


  1. kestrel says

    The Icelandic horse comment makes me laugh! I drive miniatures and I’m afraid I’m guilty of yelling the same thing at people. Except I’m not very huge looking.

    The podcast sounds interesting and I’ll have to listen to it. I was aware of a pile of manure in Mexico, right by a race track, which caught fire and burned, or rather smoldered, for years. Anxious to see if they mention it.

  2. Ice Swimmer says

    I wonder how the manure was transported further out out of the NYC and London, collecting with horse carriages and loading into barges would be my guess, as equine horsepower is rather expensive, compared to shipping with steam power when longer distances are concerned. For example in 1920s, it cost as much to transport copper ore concentrate 50 km from Outokumpu mine to Joensuu by horse in Eastern Finland as it would have cost shipping it over the Atlantic Ocean (the mine became profitable only when they built a railway).

  3. says

    Ice Swimmer@#1:
    I don’t want to spoiler the excellent podcast, but it appears that the situation was rescued by Henry Ford and railways (not to haul the poo, but rather to replace the poo generation) 70,000 horses make an unmanageable amount of poo.

    Rome had the Cloaca Maxima; I suspect that being downriver of that was not a good thing at all.

    I’m reminded of the battle of Balaclava, where Colin Campbell’s highlanders camped upriver from the English units (Campbell being no fool and Raglan and Cardigan being solidly in the fool spectrum) The English units had all kinds of problems with dysentery.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @2:

    Raglan and Cardigan being solidly in the fool spectrum

    My impression is that Raglan was a sick man at the time, but no fool, and with a distinguished career. Cardigan and Lucan were the real horror shows of incompetence.

  5. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#5:
    If they gave Nobel Prizes for incompetence, Cardigan would have one. There’s an excellent book about Cardigan at Balaclava by Donald Thomas. He was being ironic when he titled it “Cardigan: Hero of Balaclava” George MacDonald Fraser’s depiction of Cardigan in “Flashman at The Charge” is an absolutely delicious hatchet-job and seems pretty accurate per Thomas.

    The movie with Hemings is not bad – especially if you like napoleonic cavalry uniforms, which I do.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @6: Fraser also does a pretty good job on Lord Look-on, as I recall.

    The 1968 film is one of the few on my somehow-never-seen-but-must-see list.

  7. Ice Swimmer says

    Marcus Ranum @ 2

    I did listen to the podcast.

    What I meant was (idly guessing), did they actually use barges or such for getting the manure farther away than just at the other end of a bridge over East River or Hudson in NYC or up or down the Thames in London? Just hauling the manure inside the cities must have been hard enough.

  8. says

    Ice Swimmer@#9:
    I have no idea. I suspect that the Hudson was pretty nasty.
    My summers were spent in a rural part of France in the late 1960s. The neighbors up a few hundred feet had a manure pile, which was pretty much right up against the back of their house. It used to emit a small river of “poo tea” that was nose-hair-curlingly stinky in the summers. Given the amount of manure Holly and Stacy are talking about, I suspect the Hudson was pretty much “poo tea”

    I made gabbling noises of terror when they did the math about the amount of horse urine New York was receiving. I love horses, but – holy shit!

  9. Sili says

    you needed 120 people to carry supplies for 5 englishmen for a week

    Marvin Harris suggested that that’s the reason for cannibalism (“human sacrifice”) among the Aztecs. The lack of pack animals meant that they needed prisoners to transport spoils of war, particularly maize. What do prisoners eat? Your carefully conquered maize that you want for yourself. So the solution was to eat the prisoner along with the remainder of the maize upon arrival.

    I have no idea, how accepted that hypothesis is.

  10. Sheila Crosby says

    At one time they said that if you fell into the Thames, you would die of poisoning before you drowned. I have no idea whether that’s hyperbole or not. Certainly a BBC documentary once said that if you lived close to the Thames, you could polish silver and it would be black again 20 minutes later.

  11. NYC atheist says

    Excellent suggestion, you’ve just made my hour and a half commutes much more enjoyable for the upcoming weeks.

  12. Holms says

    Definite hyperbole; not only because drowning only takes ~2 minutes while poisoning digestion, but also because that is almost word for word the same as has been said of Discworld’s Ankh River.

  13. Rob says

    @ Holms, you think that the Ankh wasn’t modelled on the Thames? I could certainly believe the silver turning black. Silver just loves sulphur.

  14. says

    @kestrel (comment not appearing)
    I just accidentally deleted your comment. It went in the spam bucket for some reason and I saw 3 copies. I approved one and deleted two but now I don’t see one. Sorry! Incompetence on my part!

    -The Mgt

    PS – no mention of horse manure in Mexico. This is about victorian horse exhaust in London and New York.

  15. kestrel says

    @Marcus Ranum: thanks! I could not figure out why it would not work and was blaming my computer illiteracy.

    And now I am very fascinated and will make time to listen to this today.