South Street Squeegee

Squeegee Machine - Broad and South Streets, June 11, 1914.  (
Squeegee Machine – Broad and South Streets, June 11, 1914. (

In the 20th century, people came to love their cars, so long as they could drive them on smooth, flat, clean asphalt. In rush hour traffic, cobblestones quickly lost their charm; Belgian blocks got old fast.

Asphalt, also known as bituminous paving was as flat could be, providing those who laid it kept it clean and in good condition. And in Philadelphia, where the total area of streets was more than 17 million square yards and growing, that took some real effort. On a daily basis, a century ago, Philadelphians cleaned 8.1 million square yards of it.

According to Elements of Highway Engineering, the city’s “broken stone roads are cleaned by brushing coarse dirt into the gutters once a week, once in two weeks, or once a month, dependent upon traffic and location. Pavements are cleaned every day, every other day, every third day, or once a week dependent upon traffic, location, and other local conditions. Smooth bituminous pavements, brick pavements in good condition, and wood block pavements are cleaned by patrolmen with brooms and rotary squeegees.”

The Kindling Machinery Company of Milwaukee had the corner on the horse-drawn squeegee, a chariot-like vehicle holding 500 gallons of water that, with its roller set an oblique angle, cut a seven-foot wide swath of squeaky urban clean. As William H. Connell, Chief, Bureau of Highways and Street Cleaning in Philadelphia explained in 1914: “The operation consists of batteries of two and three squeegee machines preceded by sprinklers” about 200 yards ahead, in order, confirmed the American Highway Engineers’ Handbook, to permit the water “to saturate and loosen up the dirt on the pavement without giving it time to evaporate. … The idea of sprinkling is to soften the surface and enable the squeegee to cleanse the streets of all slime as well as the coarser materials. The squeegees are followed by two men, whom immediately sweep up the windrows of dirt into piles, and a sufficient number of carts follow to remove the dirt from the streets.”

At the dawn of the internal combustion age, especially on streets being cleaned for automobile traffic, there was something anachronistic and even quaint about the horse-drawn squeegee machine. It also came down to dollars and cents. By 1922, the original model was pitted against the new, motor-powered squeegee. The winner, hands down, was the latter, which, on a daily basis, cleaned 80,000 square yards compared with 35,000 square yards squeegeed by the horse-drawn version. The motorized model cost far less to operate. And it wasn’t pulled by horses, which were part of the problem in the first place.