“A curious thing about Philadelphia,” wrote Edith Elmer Wood in 1919, “is that pigs were permitted to be kept in the thickly settled parts of the city until quite recently. A start was made to do away with this condition, the 40,000 piggeries of a few years ago having been reduced to almost 10,000.
Then, in the Spring of 1917, Health Department officials declared that Philadelphia would be demolishing it’s last remaining piggeries.
Up until the early 20th century, urban spaces required animal agriculture. There’d be no transportation without horses. “Hogs cleaned up household slop,” Vitiello and Brinkley remind us, “chickens scratched at the waste that the pigs left behind. Sheep and goats grazed on the commons… Many urban families kept or boarded dairy cows for a supply of fresh milk. Cattle were driven from ports, and later rail stations, to markets and slaughterhouses throughout the city. Animals were everywhere, as were the nuisances that they created as they bellowed, kicked up dust, dropped manure, and knocked over passersby.”
For the first couple of hundred years, the idea of banning farm animals would have been absurd, impossible even. Keeping them under control was more likely, though always challenging. As early as 1705, city ordinances forbade “cattle and swine from running at large through the streets.” Once caught, the meat from these runaways would be forfeited, shared equally by captor and the almshouse.
In the mid-19th century, hogs were fattened for market adjacent to a large distillery in the northwest quadrant of what is now Center City (at 23rd and Summer Streets). Feed consisted of grain mash from the distillery. This symbiotic relationship continued for more than three decades before the increasing number of nearby residents led to a contested closure. Appeals continued until May 1845, when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania heard the case.
“At the time of the trial, and for a few years previous, the city had been rapidly extending in that direction… Several public institutions of great importance however had…been erected in the immediate neighborhood; and it was the alleged injury inflicted on these, as well as on the dwelling houses lately erected in the vicinity, that formed the principal ground of complaint.”
“The buildings in question were capable of accommodating as many as a thousand hogs…that in the warm weather the stench was so intolerable, as to make it almost impossible to pass through the street, on which the establishment opened, without nausea; and that when the wind was from the northwest, it was perceptible for half a mile towards the heart of the city; that the water of the Schuylkill was infected by the great quantities of filth and ordure which were discharged; that the value of property adjacent was diminished from ten to fifteen per cent., and that the comfort of the residents thereabout was materially affected by the effluvia.”
The court heard evidence for more than a week.
Piggeries had been there “from time immemorial,” claimed the defense. Moreover, they argued, the distillery “was essential to the city.”
The court agreed with the previous ruling: “Piggeries had to be removed from city limits, no matter how well established or profitable they were.” Citizens “are entitled by right to healthy air, and to a use of the public highways unimpaired by any adjacent nuisance” and “a hog pen in a city is a nuisance.” In fact, “the keeping of pigs in a community like this, whether there be one or a thousand, is indictable.”
Yet, as we read in Vitiello and Brinkley, the “debates between farmer-businessmen and city officials” continued for more than half a century longer. As the city expanded in the late 19th century, with permission from City Councils, pig farmers continued to thrive just beyond the fringes of the city’s built-up sections.
“Desperate efforts are being made by the pig owners of the First Ward [in South Philadelphia, east of Broad Street] to get from under the eye of the Health Officer and run their pens as of old,” reported the Inquirer in 1886: “the pens had been newly whitewashed and the masses of decaying garbage covered up and out of sight.” Further to the south and west, pigsties “owned by Mr. Rubel…at 31st and Maiden lane were in very bad condition. … The garbage…was left to fester, and the stench arising from the mass of filth among which the remaining animals were wallowing, exhaled an odor that could not but be highly prejudicial to public health.”
“Pigs Have Got to Go,” editorialized the newspaper as late as 1914, by which time urban expansion guaranteed proximity to piggeries. Yet they remained legal in several areas, including along Maiden Lane. “Modern cities and hog pens cannot be made to go hand in hand,” declared editors, but they fell short of calling for a complete ban.
Not so Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg. His “war upon piggeries” would include a veto of any proposed expansion piggery district. Before long, the city conducted raids on the illegal piggeries of South Philadelphia.
In 1916, John Donohoe, who owned a massive piggery on League Island Road managed to remove his livestock only 15 minutes before a noontime raid by officials from the Bureaus of Health and Sanitation joined by a half dozen mounted police and 25 laborers with orders “to demolish Donohue’s pens.” Freshly unemployed pig farmers and farm hands greeted the raiders “with hoots and jeers.” Meanwhile, owners of the remaining, smaller piggeries read the writing on the wall and dispensed with their stock “as fast as possible.”
Before long, South Philadelphia’s muddy fens were piggery free, from the Neck to Maiden Lane.
(Sources: Edith Elmer Wood, The Housing of the Unskilled Wage Earner; America’s Next Problem (The Macmillian Co., 1919); Catherine Brinkley and Domenic Vitiello, “From Farm to Nuisance: Animal Agriculture and the Rise of Planning Regulation,” Journal of Planning History, 2014, Vol. 13(2) 113-135; “Commonwealth v. Van Sickle, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania Law Journal, Volume 7 [Walker, 1848] and from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “First Ward Piggeries,” October 27, 1886; “Mayor to War upon Piggeries,” September 7, 1913; “Pigs Have Got to Go,”, March 21, 1914; “Officials Raid Piggery, but Find Swine Gone Owner Prevents Confiscation by Removing Entire Stock,” September 29,1916.)