When Mechanization Took Command

Street Cleaning Machine – Elgin Motor Sweeper, October 31, 1917 (
Street Cleaning Machine – Elgin Motor Sweeper, October 31, 1917 (

Great 20th-century cities demanded forward looking solutions. When Philadelphia announced its intentions to join the City Beautiful Movement, grandiose cleanups would call for something more than the pith-­helmeted army of “White Wings.” Marching, uniformed  broomsmen were more reminiscent of 19th– century colonial conquests than 20th-century urban efficiency.

The new solution would be a machine, and the more newfangled the better. Sprinkling and sweeping devices were horse drawn and required abundant supporting labor on foot. Squeegee machines were moving in the right direction. They slicked down miles of asphalt, but anything pulled by a horse was still old-school, manure producing, and self-defeating. What could maintain the explosion of new highways and byways and blend in with booming vehicular traffic? It would need to be something self-contained, something that looked and played the part.

In 1911, the first internal combustion powered sweeper seemed to have it all. But it was limited by a too-small collecting capacity. And its steel-rimmed wheels were out of step with rubber tire technology.  This sweeper did accomplish twice the work “at half the cost of the horse-hauled machine sweeper” but its engine moved it along at a snail’s pace and its inability to maneuver led to increased traffic congestion.

John M. Murphy, an Illinois farmer turned windmill maker turned Elgin, Illinois City Father crafted the solution with a new and improved “street sweeping machine.” Murphy’s machine was agile; it kept up with automobile traffic. It didn’t damage the pavement; it didn’t raise dust and left no debris behind. The Elgin Motor Sweeper received U. S. Patent number 1,239,293 on September 4, 1917. And a month later, an unidentified city official called for the city’s new acquisition to be brought up to the northeast corner of Philadelphia City Hall where he posed with it.

No question: the Elgin Motor Sweeper would cost-justify itself in Philadelphia, just as it had in beta testing on the roads of Boise, Idaho. There, the sweeper worked two, eight-hour shifts and cleaned 275,000 square yards of pavement per day—twice as much as the horse-drawn method. The operating cost? Nine cents per 1,000 square yards compared with a whopping 31 ½ cents using the old technique, according to the company history. “News of the fantastic new sweeper spread to Pocatello, Idaho—to Portland, Oregon” and, of course, to Philadelphia. “Fifteen Elgins were produced and put to use in 1915, twenty-three in 1916, forty-two the following year”—1917—when Philadelphia’s was proudly photographed.

The days of the “White Wing” army were over. Machines with names like “Gutter Snipe” would clean city streets in the 20th century. Mechanization, made elegant by innovation and compelling by fiscal responsibility, had taken command.