|Title||Horses in 1830s New England Towns|
|Type||Papers and Articles: OSV Research Paper|
Horses in 1830s New England Towns
By Tom Kelleher, Dec. 1999
Horses in the 19th century were primarily used for the transportation of people and goods.
Farmers moved their products and purchases (and when need be, families) with horse-drawn wagons. Doctors, ministers, and businessmen traveled daily by light, horse-drawn chaises, while merchants and factory agents shipped goods to and from their establishments in heavy freight wagons drawn by teams of horses.* Stage coaches and peddlers' wagons were common sights on the roads. Horses were widely used off the road as well. While New England farmers did indeed rely upon oxen for most draft work, horses were often also used on farms. Horses were ideal for lighter jobs such as plowing for planting and cultivating corn because they were smaller and faster than oxen. Horses were used to power cider, tan-bark, and some other types of mills.
Horses had other impacts throughout everyday 1830s society. Oats and hay for horses were major crops on 1830s New England farms. By 1837 Sturbridge had two men employed making harness, while four men (including shop owner Henry Hanes) made wagons and two made sleighs. Shoeing was often a major part of many blacksmiths' businesses.
There were 194 horses in Sturbridge in 1840. What does this statistic mean? For one thing, horses were nowhere near as common then as automobiles are now. With 1,886 people living in Sturbridge in 1840, there was a little more than one horse for every ten people. In America today there is almost a petroleum-powered vehicle for every man, woman, and child! (The different uses horses were put to and the need to use teams for heavy hauling make exact comparisons between 19th century horses and late 20th century cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles impossible, but it is a place to start.) America was a poorer country in 1840 than it is now, and the average person just plain did not own as much "stuff" as his modern counterpart. The United States in the Village period may be thought of as a "developing (formerly 'third world') nation". Most people lived on the land, while revolutions in industrialization and transportation were transforming people's lives and raising their standards of living.
Ownership of horses was not evenly distributed among the population, however. Most farmers in Worcester county who held over 50 acres (including Pliny Freeman) had one horse. A very few had two or even three (as did David Wight). Most merchants and professional men owned a horse and vehicle. Teamsters and stage coach agents sometimes owned as many as a dozen or more horses, (as did canal boat companies along the Blackstone and other canals). Approximately half of all families did not own any horses, however. Most laborers, artisans, factory workers, and other non-farmers, and those who farmed small plots, usually could not afford a horse, or at least did not feel the need for one. (Sturbridge horses in 1840 were valued at between $20 and $100 apiece, with most in the $40 to $60 range. Pasturage, hay, oats, harness, tack, a vehicle, and the need for shoeing every other month made keeping a horse a somewhat expensive proposition.) Nevertheless, when one needed to make a trip, it was commonplace to rent a horse and wagon from a neighbor.
Most of these 1830s horses were small by modern standards, not the large draft horses that pull the Village Carry-All today. Some have estimated early new England's "horse of all work" averaged 14 hands in height and weighed about 1,000 pounds. For more information, see Andy Baker's excellent essay on Horses in the Livestock section of the Agriculture Training Notebooks, and "The Whole Population Is in Motion" in Jack Larkin's The Reshaping of Everyday Life.
In sum, horses were common sights on the roads of 1830s New England, but not as universally owned as automobiles are today. Hope this helps!!