Cincinnati’s Clean-Up Campaigns Remind Us That Our Ancestors Lived Like Pigs

How different groups came together to raise us out of our collective filth.
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Based on this cartoon, it appears that Cincinnatians tossed their empty tin cans, old shoes, bottles and flower pots into a backyard heap.

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

If you had family in Cincinnati a century ago, I have bad news for you: They wallowed in garbage. It wasn’t entirely Grandma’s and Grandpa’s fault. The City of Cincinnati took a long time to figure out trash collection. Back around 1910, for example, the city sanitation wagons picked up only two kinds of refuse – ashes and garbage. Ashes were the remnants of the fuel burned in stoves and furnaces. Garbage had a very specific definition, as set forth in the 1909 Building Code:

“The word ‘garbage’ shall be held to include all refuse of animal, fish or vegetable matter which has been used for food for man, and all refuse animal, fish or vegetable matter which was intended to be so used.”

The average household also accumulated stacks of paper and piles of rags – no paper towels back then! – and the Rag Man hauled this stuff away for sale to the local paper mills.

That left several miscellaneous categories of rubbish or trash that no one had any interest in: broken bottles and crockery, old wooden barrels, scrap lumber, anything metallic like tin cans or buttons, bricks and stones, tree branches, and so on. All of this junk just piled up in the backyard or basement or both.

With most of Cincinnati’s population crammed into the downtown area and waste disposal spotty, residents filled their backyards with trash and debris. This is the backyard at 821 West Fifth Street in the West End.

IMAGE DIGITIZED BY PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY

In the early 1900s, a few progressive organizations tried to organize city-wide clean-up campaigns to eliminate all the junk from residential backyards. In addition to aesthetic concerns, there was a strong financial incentive for hauling away this trash. Cincinnati’s fire-insurance underwriters applauded [Cincinnati Enquirer 5 January 1906] a report demonstrating that a 1905 clean-up effort had resulted in 200 fewer fires than were recorded in the previous year. Insurers actually lowered rates for the downtown businesses after clean-up campaigns and Captain Jack Conway of the Cincinnati Salvage Corps requested regular campaigns to remove trash:

“He advocates the ‘clean up’ campaign be continued with unabated vigor until all rubbish is removed from cellars, old waste from under benches, &c., which are the most prolific source of fires.”

The Cincinnati Woman’s Club led the charge in 1907 and talked Mayor Edward J. Dempsey into supporting a thorough spring cleaning for the downtown area. The mayor asked residents to haul all that backyard and basement debris out to the curb on one fine day in June. Problem was, all of the city’s street-cleaning wagons were already committed to hauling ashes and garbage that day. It was only when Mayor Dempsey talked the very reluctant Street Repair Department into donating their 40 wagons that the campaign was made possible. Even a fleet that large was not enough to handle the accumulated detritus. According to the Cincinnati Post [10 June 1907]:

“As the Cincinnati Street-cleaning Department has not enough teams and men to clean up all that district in one day, the Woman’s Club, for which the city is making the experiment, has appealed to all firms and corporations and all individuals having wagons and teams to assist in the work Wednesday, June 12. That is the day upon which all the hauling will be done.”

Annual “house cleaning days” gathered enough support to continue for several years, but the Woman’s Club had other initiatives to support and leadership for the campaign transferred to the Chamber of Commerce, which super-sized the operation. For the 1914 campaign, the Chamber set aside several weeks in the spring for the clean-up, followed by a city-wide inspection. The Chamber paid for 100,000 lapel buttons promoting the effort and printed 250,000 circulars informing residents how to participate.

The Chamber even coughed up a $25 prize for the best “Clean Up and Paint Up” song. The winning lyrics were composed by Dr. Stephen E. Slocum, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Cincinnati, whose words were set to music by Walter H. Aiken, director of music for the Cincinnati Public Schools. The local schools stepped up to promote the clean-up campaign, not only by distributing brochures and flyers, but by planting gardens in most of the city’s schoolyards.

It was only on specified clean-up days that the City of Cincinnati hauled away anything other than coal ashes and kitchen scraps. The downtown alleys overflowed with trash at any other time.

IMAGE EXTRACTED FROM MICROFILM BY GREG HAND

In addition to aesthetics and fire safety, the 1914 campaign encouraged sanitary measures to stop the spread of flies. At a time when the majority of vehicles on Cincinnati’s roads were horse-drawn, manure piled up all through the city, supporting an infestation of flies unimaginable today.

After weeks of encouraging residents to tidy up their properties, the Chamber coordinated a city-wide inspection to document compliance and results. According to the annual report, some citizens were none to happy about having their domestic habits evaluated:

“There were some people with a misconception of the meaning of personal liberty who refused to allow inspection of their premises and some preferred not to aid in a general ‘clean up’ for fear it would be only spasmodic and not result in permanent good.”

Despite scattered opposition, the Chamber bragged that the 1914 campaign resulted in a $600,000 reduction in fire loss, from $1.3 million in 1913 to less than $800,000 in 1914. Nearly 8,000 wagonloads of trash were hauled out of residential areas. That success led to an even more ambitious campaign plan for 1915. In fact, the Chamber may have become a victim of its own success. A report suggests that few of the campaign’s ambitious goals were achieved in 1915, although the results were still impressive.

At the conclusion of the 1915 clean-up period, the Chamber coordinated city-wide inspections. More than 42,000 premises received a visit, with 30,000 earning a clean certification. The remaining 12,000 properties appalled the inspectors, who identified nearly 35,000 defects ranging from unsecured garbage and ash cans to obstructed fire escapes to overflowing privy vaults and unsanitary toilets to open manure piles.

Trash the city wouldn’t haul away – busted furniture, broken tools, leather goods, worn-out baskets – ended up in the tenement cellar.

IMAGE DIGITIZED BY PUBLIC LIBRARY OF CINCINNATI AND HAMILTON COUNTY

More than 300 buildings were found in such deplorable condition that they were ordered razed. The city located nearly 1,300 illegally maintained backyard outhouses and ordered them replaced with flush toilets that could still be located in the backyard if preferred!

Thanks to the generosity of the Mabley & Carew Company, clean-up participants planted more than 84,000 trees on Cincinnati’s barren hillsides.

While congratulating itself on a job well done, the Chamber dinged the city administration for outdated and ineffective procedures for removing garbage and other refuse:

“The city has made no step forward for the disposal of its waste, except garbage, since its first log cabin was built in January 1789. As the population has increased, the dumps have grown in size and become nearer to built up residence sections. This has resulted in strenuous complaints from time to time, and the elimination of those dumps against which pressure has become too strong to be resisted by city officials.”

Alas, with the city administration still under the thumb of the Boss Cox machine, city officials could resist any level of public pressure without even breaking a sweat.

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