When we say someone or something is a “workhorse” these days, it signifies working hard for a long time, but we rarely mean an animal. For most of Princeton’s past, however, this term would have referred to literal horses. Horses were a vital part of daily life well into the 20th century.
The most obvious reason for 21st-century readers to imagine for the historical need for a horse would be transportation, and horses were indeed key to connecting Princeton with the rest of the world. Yet horses did much more for Princeton than carry people around. They helped build and maintain Princeton.
In the 18th century, a team of four horses pulled the stagecoach that ran between Philadelphia and New York with an overnight stop in Princeton. An ad in the New York Gazette from 1774 dubbed the coach “THE FLYING MACHINE” because it could make the trip so quickly. Over land, the only way to get to Princeton other than walking prior to the railroad’s arrival in 1839 was by some form of actual horsepower, but even after the railroad’s arrival Princetonians relied heavily on horses to get from one place to another. The 19th century’s scientific expeditions needed horses to carry them where the railroads could not, for example, and sometimes one simply preferred a horse.
Princeton employed horses for many other things, too. Horses wearing leather boots to prevent damaging the lawns pulled mowers to cut the grass. When heavy snow fell, horses pulled snow plows. It was horses who moved houses on land Princeton University had purchased to build new buildings, helped clear the land for Palmer Stadium and Joline Hall, and excavated the land for Lake Carnegie alongside human workers.
Working horses didn’t just supply sheer brawn. Their intelligence was also helpful at times. If the usual milk delivery worker got sick, the horse from Stewart L. Reed’s Dairy knew the route and would stop where needed on its own, so the substitute never had to do anything but ride along and put milk bottles down where the horse indicated. The route included houses where several of Princeton’s professors lived.
Horses exercising their own agency could be a boon or a detriment, depending on your perspective (and depending on the temperament of the horse). Horses became part of the curriculum during World War I, when students trained with them in field artillery classes. It didn’t always go smoothly. They caused some problems when they escaped and stampeded in 1921. Malcolm Warnock ’25 said that the horse he rode during his ROTC training had a mind of his own. Being in the mood for dinner, the horse decided Warnock should lead the group rather than follow so he could finish first, and broke formation. “My horse,” Warnock said, “had gotten a little bit tired with all this nonsense…”
Another challenge associated with heavy reliance on the labor of horses is that they can get sick. Given the integral role horses played in their lives, Princetonians probably watched the so-called “Great Epizootic of 1872” spread with fear and trepidation. This equine influenza epidemic disrupted transportation and work throughout the United States, killing thousands of horses and making exponentially more extremely ill, but I found little in available records to indicate much about the impact on horses in Princeton. Still, with travel at a standstill in the region and goods left with almost no means of transport, it is difficult to imagine that the average Princetonian would not have had some hardship during the epidemic, or that Princeton’s horses would have been untouched by the illness. A report given to Congress afterward estimated the ultimate rate of infection among horses in North America from Toronto to Cuba at about 80-99%. Nearly all horses who contracted equine influenza were too sick to stand, running fevers and coughing and sneezing so much people feared they would suffocate themselves. Aside from wagons and buggies standing still, trains could not run without horses to move the coal, and barges did not move along canals without horses to pull them. The U.S. Army fought the Apache with both sides on foot due to neither having horses well enough to ride; Boston burned for days in November because people, rather than horses, had pull fire wagons; and cities from Maine to California reported eerie quiet in the deserted streets.
Princeton’s Lyman Atwater, a professor of political science, wrote about the connection between commerce coming to a standstill due to the widespread incapacity of horses that fall and winter and the financial panic of 1873 that led to what was known, until the 1930s, as the “Great Depression.” Our records do not give us much insight into how people responded locally to the immediate problem of an entire nation of sick horses. However, they do indicate that the economic downturn that followed had serious implications for the College of New Jersey (as Princeton University was named until 1896). The minutes of the meetings of the Board of Trustees in the aftermath note that fewer donations were coming in. Despite keeping expenses down to “the absolute minimum,” Princeton was running at a deficit. The crisis continued for years, with the outlook only becoming bleaker as the decade wore on. In 1878, the Committee on Finance warned that without making some sort of course correction, Princeton would be unable to pay faculty salaries in the next quarter. The financial outlook was much better in 1879, as the economic depression lifted.
Horses were crucial to daily life in society as Americans knew it in prior centuries, but a horse could also be fun. Horses were routinely part of recreation, whether by racing, pulling a sleigh, or marching in a parade. The horses themselves were likely to have seen this as similar to their own daily work more than a break, of course. For a real break, horses could stop at the water fountain for them just outside the gates to campus. Riders would often hitch their horses to iron posts along the front of campus while they shopped.
Polo is more commonly played in a pool these days, but polo on horseback was once popular at Princeton, too. Such a sport was much easier to play in the era of ubiquitous horses. When the field artillery classes switched from horses to cars in 1937, the days of polo on horseback were numbered. As the horse population dwindled, the town shut off the water supply to the horse fountain in 1960. In the 1970s, the Equestrian Club struggled to stay afloat, though a few passionate students remained. In spite of occasional appearances on Nassau Street or in the P-Rade, horses largely disappeared from campus life. A recent revival of polo is unlikely to change that for the average Princetonian.
There aren’t that many overt references to the role of horses at Princeton in the University Archives, but that isn’t surprising. The absence of horses during most of Princeton’s first two centuries would be more unusual than presence of one on campus would be today. To have left explicit records of horses was perhaps not something that would have occurred to people for whom horses were as ubiquitous a sight as cars are for us. Yet they are still there for the careful observer to uncover, along with a variety of other not-so-obvious themes that emerge from our collections.
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)
Historical Photograph Collection, Lake Carnegie Construction Photographs Series (AC065)
For further reading:
Judson, Adoniram J. “History and Course of the Epizootic among Horses on the North American Continent in 1872-73.” Public Health Papers and Reports, Vol. 1 (1873): 88-109.