John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Take a reeking dive into the Manhattan neighborhood’s days as a meat-packing district.
Today, the stretch of Hell’s Kitchen around Eleventh Avenue and 39th Street doesn’t make much of an impression—the stoic facade of the Javits Convention Center, idling buses, a dull roar of Lincoln Tunnel traffic.
But in the 1860s, the Manhattan neighborhood was a beastly wonderland of stenches, bloody parades, and diseases from which to horribly perish. Among its meatpacking-focused highlights were slaughterhouses, gut-cleaning and fat-boiling outfits, towering manure heaps, and stables devoted to the production of “swill milk”—the squeezings of frequently diseased cows that were consumed by the poor, to their detriment.
The area’s stinking history was recently highlighted by the New York Public Library’s Map Division, which posted this map of “Bone Boiling and Swill-Milk Nuisances" from 1865’s Report of the Council of Hygiene and Public Health of the Citizens' Association of New York Upon the Sanitary Condition of the City.
While the source document does little to explain what a “hog drove yard” or “skin factory” were—the latter could be a term for a leather-making facility—one of its authors, sanitary inspector James Little M.D., did offer a wealth of information on the neighborhood’s other gruesomeness. There was a pork-packing building at 39th Street where “blood and liquid offal flows the distance of two blocks before it empties into the river,” Little wrote. “This, during the summer weather, undergoes decomposition, which gives rise to a very offensive odor, and certainly must exert a very injurious effect upon the health of those living in the vicinity.”
The place was alive with “gutters running with blood and filth, and the constant passage of offal and dead animals to the offal-dock,” the good doctor continued. “And scattered through the midst of these nuisances, which are constantly contaminating the atmosphere with their noxious exhalations, and surrounding them on all sides, are the crowded and ill-ventilated tenant-houses. Cases of fever are constantly occurring in this neighborhood, and cholera infantum and dysentery are by no means strangers to this vicinity.”
Intrigued? Let’s dive into Little’s observations:
Fat-boiling and gut-cleaning establishments: “The smoke or gas emitted from their chimneys spreads itself over the upper part of the city, and on days when the atmosphere and wind are favorable the stench is perceptible for full a mile and a half from the buildings.”
Manure heaps: “Thousands of loads are gathered together upon these lots and allowed to undergo the process of ‘rotting,’ requiring months to fit it for market…. The stench arising from these accumulations of filth is intolerable.”
Offal dock: “Here the carcasses of horses, cows, and other dead animals, and also the offal from the slaughter-houses, are brought to be removed from the limits of the city…. The lungs and other useless material are required by law to be conveyed outside the Narrows and thrown into the water. The legs of the larger animals are removed and skinned on the dock. The tendons are saved to be made into gelatine and glue. The hoofs are used in the preparation of Prussian Blue.”
Swill-milk establishments: What is swill milk? The New York Times described it as a “filthy, bluish substance milked from cows tied up in crowded stables adjoining city distilleries and fed the hot alcoholic mash left from making whiskey. This too was doctored—with plaster of Paris to take away the blueness, starch, and eggs to thicken it and molasses to give it the buttercup hue of honest Orange County milk.” Back when people were drinking the stuff, reported the Times, it probably killed as many as 8,000 children a year.
Little visited one such milkery, where hundreds of cows were jammed in units of two-dozen animals into 25-by-60-foot stables. “In these stables a disease occurs as an epidemic, and to save the cows from this malady inoculation is resorted to,” he wrote. He then quotes from 1864’s Food of Cities: “This is performed by cutting a slit in the skin of the animal’s tail, and binding therein a piece of the lung of an animal that has died of this disease. In consequence of the introduction of poisonous virus the tail swells, inflammation takes place, and not unfrequently the inflammation is so great that the tail swells to four or five times its natural size, and has to be amputated to save the life of the animal. Hence the name ‘stump tail.’”
Folks who must know more about New York’s sanitation in the 1800s should consult the full report, which will provide hours of spellbinding bedtime instruction and lurid nightmares thereafter.