“Filth is the Arch Enemy of Health”: The Committee on Public Health and Waste Management in New York City

This guest post is by Tina Peabody, 2019 Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine, and a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY focusing on the urban environment in the United States. She is currently completing her dissertation entitled “Wretched Refuse: Garbage and the Making of New York City”, a social and economic history of waste management in New York City between the 1880s and 1990s.

The Committee on Public Health at the New York Academy of Medicine is well known for their role in creating the Department of Sanitation in 1929, through the development of the Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness. However, the broader Committee’s activism on sanitation has a longer and more complex history. Soon after its formation in 1911, the Committee on Public Health decried the conditions of city streets. They held conferences on sanitation in 1914 and 1915 which included representatives of the Department of Street Cleaning and other municipal departments.[1] While Department of Street Cleaning Commissioner J. T. Fetherston claimed he could not update equipment nor flush streets with water, he nonetheless encouraged the Committee to educate the public about the connections between dirt and disease.[2]  With that in mind, the Committee wrote a report in 1915 which connected the pathogens in street dirt to illness.[3]

Two men hauling garbage into an open refuse truck.

Commitee of Twenty, Dusty Trucks 2

The Committee of Twenty was particularly concerned about open refuse trucks which could spew dust and debris. Images: Committee of Twenty, Committee on Public Health Archives, New York Academy of Medicine, ca. 1930.

In 1928, a subcommittee called The Committee of Twenty was formed, in part because conditions did not improve substantially after the conferences and report.[4]  Among their recommendations, the Committee of Twenty supported the creation of a unified sanitation agency with full control over street cleanliness.[5]  They envisioned themselves as educators for the Department of Sanitation as well as the public, and they researched the latest collection methods and equipment from Europe to recommend improvements.[6] The newly-created Department of Sanitation, however, resisted investing in the recommended equipment, partially due to the expense.[7] Still, the Committee monitored street conditions, and kept photographic evidence of city and private sanitation trucks spewing dust and debris on the streets or other violations of sanitary ordinances.

Commitee of Twenty, Dirty Streets

Picture of overflowing refuse cans from the Committee of Twenty. Image: Committee of Twenty, Committee on Public Health Archives, New York Academy of Medicine, ca. 1930.

The Committee of Twenty also educated the public about outdoor cleanliness and especially the connections between dirt and disease. They issued pamphlets warning that “filth is the arch enemy of health,” and urged them to take personal responsibility for clean streets. “Do not put all the blame on the city administration,” one pamphlet read. “This is your city. A clean city means better health, better business; greater happiness for all; respect for law and order.”[8]  Along with educational literature, they placed litter baskets around the city, and posted signs which reminded New Yorkers of sanitary practices like “curbing” dogs.[9]  They also encouraged public participation in solving sanitary problem in novel ways, such as holding a contest for the best litter basket design in 1930.[10] 

Committee of Twenty, Don't

Educational Pamphlet from the Committee of Twenty. Image: Committee of Twenty, Committee on Public Health Archives, New York Academy of Medicine, ca. 1930.

The Committee was also influential in the citywide cleanup effort in preparation for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Members of the Committee of Twenty and their allies argued that the Fair was the perfect opportunity for improving street cleanliness. Committee members Bernard Sachs and E. H. L. Corwin wrote that New York City was “the ‘Wonder City of the World,’ beyond a doubt; the ‘cleanest city,’ by no means. But we must make it that.”[11]  In line with the idea, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia declared April 1939 “dress up paint up” month, and launched a broad beautification effort which included removal of litter, dog waste, and even “beggars, vagrants and peddlers.”[12]  Bernard Sachs was the representative for the Committee of Twenty on the Mayor’s Committee on Property Improvement, which was developed for the cleanliness campaign.

Committee of Twenty, Why Clean Streets 1

Educational pamphlet from the Committee of Twenty. Image: Committee of Twenty, Committee on Public Health Archives, New York Academy of Medicine, ca. 1930.

Committee of Twenty, Why Clean Streets 2

Educational pamphlet from the Committee of Twenty. Image: Committee of Twenty, Committee on Public Health Archives, New York Academy of Medicine, ca. 1930.

In 1950, the Committee on Public Health supported an initiative to introduce alternate side street parking to allow street cleaning unobstructed from parked automobiles, but otherwise was much less active on sanitation issues after the 1939 World’s Fair.[13]  At a meeting with Department of Sanitation Commissioner Andrew Mulrain in 1950, the Committee even debated whether unclean streets actually did cause disease.[14]  One Dr. Lincoln wondered if clean streets were not simply a matter of “public pride.” [15]  Still, the Committee’s early work on outdoor cleanliness would have a lasting legacy, particularly in terms of public education. The Outdoor Cleanliness Association, which was formed shortly after the Committee of Twenty [16], continued their educational work with regular cleanliness drives through the 1950s and 1960s in coordination with the Sanitation and Police departments.

References

 [1] “Minutes of the Meeting of the Public Health, Hospital, and Budget Committee October 26, 1914,” The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1914–1915 (New York, NY), 74; “Minutes of the Meeting of the Public Health, Hospital, and Budget Committee Conference on Street Cleaning May 7, 1915,” The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1914–1915 (New York, NY), 153–55.

[2] “Minutes of the Meeting of the Public Health, Hospital, and Budget Committee,” November 16, 1914, The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1914–1915 (New York, NY), 84–85; “Minutes of the Meeting of the Public Health, Hospital, and Budget Committee Conference on Street Cleaning May 7, 1915,” The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1914–1915 (New York, NY), 153-54 .

[3] Committee on Public Health, “Thirty Years in Community Service 1911–1941: A Brief Outline of the Work of the Committee on Public Health Relations of the New York Academy of Medicine” (The New York Academy of Medicine, 1941), 79.

[4] Committee on Public Health, “Thirty Years in Community Service 1911–1941,” 80.

[5] “Minutes of the Meeting of the Executive Committee of the Committee on Public Health Relations,” May 14, 1928, The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1927–1928 (New York, NY), 134; Committee on Public Health, “Thirty Years in Community Service 1911–1941: A Brief Outline of the Work of the Committee on Public Health Relations of the New York Academy of Medicine,” 10.

[6] Committee on Public Health, “Thirty Years in Community Service 1911–1941,” 80.

[7] Committee on Public Health, “Memorandum of a Conference between Dr. William Schroeder, Jr., Chairman, Sanitary Commission…..May 19, 1931,” 1–4, Committee on Public Health Archives, Box 4, Folder 50c.

[8] Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, “Why Clean Streets? Because Filth Is the Arch Enemy of Health” (New York Academy of Medicine, n.d.), Special Collections, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

[9] Committee on Public Health, “Thirty Years in Community Service 1911–1941: A Brief Outline of the Work of the Committee on Public Health Relations of the New York Academy of Medicine,” 80.

[10] Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, “Prize Contest for the Design of a Litter Basket For New York City” (New York Academy of Medicine, n.d.), Special Collections, New York Academy of Medicine Library.

[11] Bernard Sachs and E. H. L. Corwin, “Fair Offers Opportunity: City Is Urged to Institute a Program of Outdoor Cleanliness,” New York Times, July 4, 1938.

[12] Marshall Sprague, “Clean City for Fair: Public and Private Groups Hard at Work Dressing Up New York for April, 1939 Mayor Is Enthusiastic Keeping Waters Pure Refurbishing Statues Beautification Drives,” New York Times, September 18, 1938; Elizabeth La Hines, “Drive Is Begun For a Tidy City During the Fair: Outdoor Cleanliness Group to Ask Wide Aid in Fight on Sidewalk Rubbish One Nuisance Abated Aid Through New Equipment Model for Other Cities,” New York Times, April 9, 1939.

[13] Committee on Public Health, “Pioneering in Public Health for Fifty Years” (The New York Academy of Medicine, 1961), 62.

[14]  “Minutes of the Meeting of the Subcommittee on Street Sanitation,” June 21, 1950, The Public Health Committee of the New York Academy of Medicine Minutes 1949–1950 (New York (N.Y.)), 473.

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  George A. Soper, “Attacking the Problem of Litter in New York,” New York Times, November 5, 1933.

 

 

 

 

 

Garbage and the City

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

This summer we are proud to present a new collaborative series, “Garbage and the City: Two Centuries of Dirt, Debris and Disposal.”

Together with our partners the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE Global: Architecture for Health, “Garbage and the City” presents three moments in the city’s battle with sanitation and waste disposal challenges in a rapidly growing urban environment. Catherine McNeur will set the scene with “Hog Wash, Swill Milk, & the Politics of Waste Recycling in Antebellum Manhattan” on July 1. Julie Sze will discuss “Noxious New York: Race, Class and Garbage” on August 3, and finally, Robin Nagle, anthropologist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation, will consider the daily practice of garbage collection and management in the city today with “Life Along the Curb: Inside the Department of Sanitation of New York” on August 17. All three events are free with advance registration.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1929. Photo from The New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1929. Photo from The New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

The Academy has a long history tackling questions related to New York City’s sanitation infrastructure. Waste management and disposal was an ongoing concern as the city grew. Despite the creation of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1881, street cleaning and garbage removal contracts, like many other services enmeshed in the politics of city, included the trading of political favors, jobs for constituents, and the creation of slush funds. The threat or occurrence of epidemic disease triggered attempts to improve the situation, but at the turn of the 20th century, sanitation and waste disposal efforts remained haphazard and slow to change.

Many sanitation advocates of the late 19th century blamed disease on filth and refuse and the foul-smelling miasmas they produced. The emergence of new bacterial theories and techniques linked disease to the presence of specific pathogens. Whichever approach to disease was taken, the reality was clear: keeping the city clean from refuse was critical to minimizing the spread of infectious diseases such as cholera, making dealing with garbage a critical issue for the health of the city.

An open letter to mothers from the Committee of Twenty.

An open letter to mothers from the Committee of Twenty. Click to enlarge.

The Academy’s Committee for Public Health proposed new street cleaning methods periodically in the early 1900s. At this time, most of New York City’s garbage was carried out to sea in barges and dumped into the ocean. Collaborating with municipal officials and around a dozen civic organizations, the Academy appointed a Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness (a subcommittee of its Committee on Public Health). Its goal was public education, and included signage urging people to clean the sidewalks and curb their dogs, and a competition to design a more effective trash basket. The Committee reported on topics as varied as the effective design of dump trucks; conditions at the city’s open air markets and suggestions for their improvement; education campaigns instructing “every mother in this neighborhood” to teach their children to “refrain from this obnoxious practice” of throwing litter in street; and air pollution from fires on Rikers Island.1

Pamphlets reflecting the work of George Soper and the Committee of Twenty.

Pamphlets reflecting the work of George Soper and the Committee of Twenty.

In the 1930s, George Soper, the sanitation engineer best known for identifying Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary”) as a carrier of typhoid,2 was sent by the Committee of Twenty to take a trash tour of Europe. He attended the 1931 International Conference on Public Cleansing in London; measured the plowing capacity of German snow trucks; visited 14 incineration plants; and documented varied street sweeping methods during his extensive travels. The evidence he brought back all pointed in the same direction: whatever its successes, New York City was behind the times when it came to dealing with trash. The Academy used Soper’s reports to urge significant changes in the infrastructure of New York City’s garbage collection and disposal.

By 1933, politics struck again. The Committee chairman’s report stated that “the activities of the Committee of Twenty were considerably curtailed by the unexpected changes in City administration.”3 The Committee bemoaned the fact that despite better cooperation between the Police and Sanitation Departments, new ordinances and regulations were not systematically followed, and the “streets of New York City remain an untidy, if not disgraceful, condition.”4 Despite their concerns, the Committee concluded that the combination of political change and worsening economic conditions meant their attention would be better directed towards other efforts at a national level.

On a more positive note, the 1930s saw considerable resources expended, partly through New Deal projects, building new sanitation infrastructure, particularly sewage treatment.5 A 1934 law curtailed the dumping of municipal waste at sea, beginning a new era of sanitary landfills.6 Throughout the decade the Department of Sanitation (renamed from the Department of Street Cleaning in 1929) introduced new mass-produced garbage truck able to better compact and transport garbage. The winning entrant of the Committee’s competition for a more effective trash basket however, has sadly been lost to time.

New York City garbage truck circa 1930.

New York City garbage truck, circa 1930. Photo from the New York Academy of Medicine Committee on Public Health Archive.

The “Garbage and the City” series is presented in collaboration with the Museum of the City of New York and ARCHIVE GLOBAL and is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

References

1. Committee of Twenty on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, Committee on Public Health Archive, New York Academy of Medicine.

2. George A. Soper, “The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary,Bulletin of The New York Academy of Medicine, 1939 Oct; 15(10): 698–712.

3. Presumably a reference to Mayor John O’Brien, who served a one year term in 1933 before being defeated by Fiorello LaGuardia. O’Brien is now regarded as the last of the “Tammany Hall” mayors, criticized for his lackluster response to the impact of the Depression on the New York population. See: “Mayor John O’Brien: His Heart Is As Black As Yours!” Bowery Boys blog, February 25, 2010.

4. Report of the Chairman at the meeting of March 23, 1933, Committee of 20 on Street and Outdoor Cleanliness, New York Academy of Medicine Archives.

5. John Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City 1866-1966 (Russell Sage Foundation: New York, 1968), 521.

6. George S. Soper, “Disposal of waste an urgent problem: Supreme Court order against dumping at sea points the need for incinerators,” The New York Times, March 18, 1934.