A "dirty, miserable, squalid, poverty-stricken place": Kansas City cleans up its act

The winter of 1892-1893 saw a revival of concern about an epidemic of cholera, typhus, or diphtheria occurring in Kansas City in spring, just as the city was hoping for a surge of visitors en route to the World’s Fair in Chicago. The Journal complained that eastern newspapers were calling the city “the filthiest in the United States,” and while the editors took umbrage, claiming it was a systematic campaign to keep people from emigrating to the city[1] and even that no city in the country was ahead of Kansas City in cleanliness once spring rains washed mud from the streets,[2] the fact was that poor city sanitation was, as the Journal admitted, “an invitation for the coming of these filth-loving diseases….”[3] 

OK Creek 21st & Wyandotte 1885Kansas City’s sewers were inadequate to serve a rapidly growing population. O.K. creek, running through much of the city, was an open sewer over much of its length, though work was underway to enclose it.  A city sanitary official described long rows of wooden houses in the southern part of the city whose drainage emptied into gullies and cesspools as presenting “a constant menace to the public health.”[4]

The city had no garbage service. People burned their garbage, dumped it in vacant lots, buried it, or paid teamsters to haul it to the Missouri River. The wood block paving on most city streets was in an advanced state of decay: the blocks “rot out and absorb all the filth and slime of the street and contain more germs than fifty loads of garbage,” complained a prominent citizen, Colonel Theodore Case.Col Theodore Case

Memphis, he said, had suffered from yellow fever and cholera before it replaced its rotten wooden pavements, [5] and Kansas City should do the same before the arrival of spring. While the streets were still frozen was the best time to clear them, editorialized the Journal, but city officials claimed lack of funds: “If there ever was a time when a concerted effort to the end of improving the sanitary condition of the city was more needed than now,” said the Journal, “the oldest inhabitant has forgotten it. [6]

As spring and the opening of the world’s fair approached, Assistant Sanitary Superintendent Waring wrote to a number of cities about their expenditures on sanitation. Their sanitary systems “are far in advance of the remarkably countrified and impoverished department which Kansas City maintains,” the Times reported. Denver, with a population about the same as Kansas City’s, was reported to employ sixteen men in its sanitary department and spend $90,000 a year on garbage collection and disposal, quarantine regulations, cleaning alleys, and sanitary department salaries. Kansas City “employs four sanitary policemen, has no garbage system, and spends on its health department $5,500….”[7]

At the instigation of Waring and the Board of Health, the city sent circulars to all city residents asking them to clean up their premises, with threats of arrest and fines for residents who did not comply.[8]  

Civic pride was at least as much of a driver for the cleanup as fear of cholera. The Star quoted a citizen, identified only as one who “takes a lively interest in everything pertaining to the advancement of Kansas City” – probably the Star’s editor, William Rockhill Nelson – imagining how the city would look to visitors. In addition to cleaning up back yards and cellars in anticipation of cholera, suggested the citizen, “we should make a special effort to have our streets look neat and tidy all the time. … Walk down Main street any afternoon and you will find it littered with orange peels, cigar stumps, dirty paper and refuse from the stores for it s entire length.”

What impression would “a capitalist from some cleanly European city have of us” at the sight of the town’s leading commercial street littered with refuse?  In Europe, he said, streets are kept clean: “Why, when I was there I had to give up chewing because I could not spit on the street…. they look upon the street as a public parlor. Why should not we?[9]

In a later editorial, the Star delivered a stern lecture – almost surely the voice of Nelson himself -- on what it regarded as the real problem: the crude behavior of the city’s residents, “entirely made up of people who have come here from smaller towns.” Even if all the alleys and cesspools are drained and sewers built, the visitor “will see things to convince him that this is a very dirty, miserable, squalid, poverty-stricken place, even though to the inhabitants it may seem the pleasantest spot on earth.”

People from small towns go about in their shirt-sleeves, the paper complained, and mend broken windows with “a pine board or a pillow.” They are accustomed to dirt, but the easterner coming to town “sees the vacant lots in the center of the city used as neighborhood dumps and sees fences unpainted and sidewalks battered; he doesn’t understand that it is only a slovenly habit which causes these things…. Kansas City should stop it. She is getting old enough to wash her face, button her shoes, comb her hair and come down to breakfast with the rest of the family.”[10]

The project of the civic leaders was more practical than Nelson’s efforts at cultural uplift. Sanitary officersBuilding in Little Italy and policemen went around the city enforcing the cleanup order. Some parts of town, like “Little Italy,” received special attention. In 1893 “Little Italy” consisted of two tenement buildings at Locust and Third streets which were said to hold three hundred people, two thirds of the city’s Italian population. Most of the residents worked as produce vendors at the city market, a few blocks away.

The Star’s portrayal described it as one of many places of “incredible filth” in the city, attributing the condition less to racial prejudice and civic neglect than to the characteristics of its inhabitants: “There are many negroes about the place, but they have no more pride about personal cleanliness when living in little Rome than do the Romans, so the place reeks with filth. Water,” it admitted, is “very scarce….” The Star’s readers were invited to imagine consuming produce from the city market ripened in a place where garbage was piled high.[11]

As the weather warmed and police began to serve notices requiring property owners to connect their privy vaults to the public sewer and threaten with arrest people who failed to clean up their premises, Sanitary Superintendent Waring noticed “unusual activity among the citizens. Piles of ashes and debris were disappearing from the alleys and the dump was crowded with wagons day and night.” [12]

Mayor Cowherd reported that there was a “general disposition on the part of citizens to keep things clean...,” but the Journal was skeptical – could the city authorities do this, it wondered, or would the effort fail for lack of money or the “inattention or inefficiency” of the authorities:

 It cannot be too thoroughly impressed upon the minds of all who undertake the exposure of accumulations of filth that the safety of the entire city from a possible epidemic rests upon the intelligent and vigorous discharge of their duty….. The refusal or neglect of property owners or tenants to remove accumulations of pestilential garbage should be promptly dealt with until people who thus show that they too lightly regard the welfare of their neighbors are awakened to a proper sense of their responsibility as citizens.[13]

Suspicion of the capabilities and honesty of city officials attended the cleanup, as with many city projects.  When notice was served on property owners to connect their privy vaults with the sewer system, there were accusations that sanitary officers were throwing business to vault cleaners and sewer connection contractors, the latter sometimes representing themselves to property owners as coming from the Board of Health.[14]

The Journal’s skepticism was apparently laid to rest by Chief of Police Speers, who reported that from the beginning of March to mid-April, 8000 loads of garbage had been brought to the only dump in town, Wood Brothers at the foot of Holmes Street, from whence it was dumped directly into the Missouri River.

Speers claimed that “Kansas City never saw in her history such a cleaning up as has been going on here in the last six weeks …. The people all over the city want to be clean and have everything around them clean. Of the first 6,000 notices served by the police all but about 100 were obeyed and those who failed to do what we ordered were arrested.”[15]  The Journal reported with approval that the notorious “Little Italy” was said to be hardly recognizable, the residents having removed “untold loads of filth and rubbish and garbage…”[16]

With the initial cleanup underway, the city council at the end of March drafted a municipal ordinance to create a service for future removal of garbage from businesses and residences, dividing the city into ten districts corresponding to political wards, with contractors to be paid by the load. The ordinance stipulated that the garbage was to be collected “in galvanized iron tanks” bought by the health board and sold in turn to residents: “The garbage is to be removed from hotels and restaurants once every twenty-four hours and from private houses once every two days, except during the winter months, when the Board of Health may permit less frequent removals.”[17]

The ordinance was approved by the council on April 3, with an amendment allowing citizens to purchase their own receptacles rather than getting them from the city,[18] but even before service began, things began to go awry. Circulars from the Board of Health required residents to have “galvanized cans made of No. 24 iron, holding from five to twenty gallons, according to the capacity required.” But there remained, said the Journal, “a vast amount of vagueness and misunderstanding connected with the average citizen’s conception of the whole matter…. the average householder seems to have the idea that the board is selling receptacles, and it has scores of would-be customers every day.”[19] The Times reported that many householders “cannot see why they should be required to buy garbage cans  if they have no garbage, or if they have such a small amount that it can be burned.”

The Board of Health maintained that under the ordinance every family must purchase a garbage can, but City Counselor Rozelle declared that families who wished to do so could burn their garbage and not be required to buy cans, while those who did buy cans could buy any can they wished as long as it was made of No. 24 galvanized iron or better. Even as wagons began to appear on the streets, the garbage contractor complained that not one family in a hundred had a garbage can and “he has to do a great deal of fruitless hunting after the garbage.”[20]Detroit sanitary garbage pail co

Detroit sanitary garbage canThe Times took up the garbage can controversy amidst claims that the Board of Health’s circulars favored the rather expensive and elaborate cans of a particular company, the Sanitary Garbage Pail Company of Detroit, by featuring samples of these cans at its office: “According to the circular,” wrote the Times, “a certain company’s cans is plainly given the preference, ‘but a different kind of a can may be used,’ in the language of the circular, ‘if approved by the Board of Health.’ …. It is clearly apparent that the board has not only widely advertised a certain firm in its circular, but has shown it especial favor."

The Times cited Counselor Rozelle’s opinion that it did not matter what cans were used so long as they were “air and water-tight and would not breed a nuisance.” Blame for endorsing the Detroit can was passed around among members of the Board of Health until it was decided that the wording was an oversight. “However that may be,” wrote the Times, “the Detroit Garbage company has secured a good deal of free advertising and has probably sold a good many cans to people who otherwise would have bought a cheaper one.” A hardware seller added to the indignation by saying that the No. 24 galvanized iron required by the board was unnecessarily heavy for the purpose, and that galvanized iron was in any case less suitable than tin.[21]

The Times gleefully trumpeted its role as tribune of a public “deceived by printed circular and published statement of the Board of Health” into believing it had to buy a can of certain dimensions, “made of a certain quality of galvanized iron and supplied with a certain number of handles – if not, indeed, of a certain foreign manufacture….” It had demonstrated that any water-tight and air-tight receptacle could be used for garbage, “whether it was made of galvanized iron or not , whether  it had two handles or twenty, whether it was made in Detroit or Irkutsk, and whether it was bought yesterday or years ago.”

Meanwhile, the elaborate Detroit can, “fitted on an imitation section of fence and placed in a prominent position, with advertisements on it containing the board’s resolution adopting it, still held a prominent position in the Board of Health office,” but “the attempt to mislead the public into the wholesale purchase of a particular company’s cans… had completely failed.”

Bullene, Moore Emery adIt was a trying time for Mayor Cowherd, who was visited by a citizen bringing to his office an iron can objected to by the sanitary officer before the Times’ article. The Mayor looked the can over and said it would answer the purpose. “I am glad the Times called my attention to the garbage receptacle matter,” said the Mayor[22], who was also visited by a representative of the Bullene, Moore, Emery and Co. department store, with sample garbage cans for his endorsement. The company’s ad offered three sizes of cans, along with a critique of “unscrupulous persons” claiming its cans did not conform to the city’s requirements. 

The city’s troubles with the new garbage service were far from over once the receptacle tizzy was dealt with, however. A single contract was awarded for all ten districts to J.W. Skinner, who constructed ten wagons, but he had not even begun work before discovering that many hotels and restaurants, where his profit per load would be greatest, had already made arrangements with other contractors to haul their refuse away free, proposing to feed it to hogs or use it for fertilizer.[23] The Board of Health decided to implement a licensing system for contractors with the license fee so high that Skinner would be getting an effective monopoly of the business.[24]  However, Mayor Cowherd vetoed the idea and Mr. Skinner was still complaining months later about rivals collecting garbage to sell it for hog feed.[25]

On May 9, “free removal of garbage in the city for the first time in its history” began, with refuse to be carried to the Woods Bros. dump, where a Board of Health employee would issue tickets to drivers as they deposited their load.[26]  Within days, there were complaints that Skinner’s men were failing to visit many houses, many coming from prominent citizens and city officials. Reported the Journal:

City Engineer Donnelly says he has never seen the color of the hair of a garbage man at his house….. Mr. Holmes says his garbage can is running over and has been for several days. Mr. Tiernan [president of the Upper House of the City Council] says the same, and so it goes. There is a stack of complaints in the office of the board a foot high….[27]

Hoping to improve the situation, the beleaguered Board of Health printed 1,000 cards with the word “garbage” on them for householders to put out to attract the attention of the garbage collectors. This brought a new storm of abuse from the Times, which asked why the cards were necessary if the garbage contractor is complying with the terms of his contract: “It is easy to see how it will assist him in avoiding his contract if he visits only those houses displaying the placards.” 

Chief Speers mocked the placard idea by suggesting that the next thing needed would be a guide post at the entrance to each alley pointing to the placards, then by householders flagging the collectors “with a peculiar colored piece of bunting to attract their attention to the guide post,” and finally by householders hanging out red lanterns or burning Greek fire above their cans when they saw the collector approaching. Or “they might use a revolver with blank cartridges to attract his attention. And if all these devices failed, then employ a lariat.” The Times admitted the Chief had not gone so far, “but he suggested some of them.”

The placards were “only in the nature of experiment,” said Assistant Superintendent Waring, defensively. The Times was dismissive: “If everyone hung out the placards the back alleys of Kansas City would present an extremely peculiar appearance, but how it would assist the collection of garbage is hard to tell,” especially since Skinner had so few wagons – only nineteen by the end of May – to service the estimated 25,500 households in the city. By the Times computation, the wagons “would have to be drawn around pretty quickly to cover 1,368 houses apiece every two days. This would be at the rate of about one a minute….”[28]

The Journal criticized the “unnecessary amount of fault finding” of the Board’s efforts. If putting out placards assists the work of the contractor, it argued, and saves people from the annoyance of calls when they have no garbage for disposal, then the card system should be used: “There are other things which might receive the critical attention of many of the chronic faultfinders,” such as the editors of the Times, it is suggested, “but which they will be sure to let pass unnoticed.”[29]

Nevertheless, complaints about garbage pickup continued to pour in, as the Journal itself noted in mid-June: hundreds of houses were still passed by without garbage being collected, even the houses of those who had provided themselves with the appropriate cans. Telephone calls came to the Board of Health Office and a complaint wagon was dispatched to the site of the complaint, but there was only one wagon and multiple complaints.

Skinner put the blame on his drivers. He says, reported the Journal, “he has hired fully 300 drivers since he took the contract. He hires and discharges scores of drivers every week, and he would pay excellent wages to the driver who would not leave any cause for complaint, but ,” speculated the editors, “such a paragon of perfection is probably running some more profitable business than driving a garbage wagon.”[30] Skinner had another complaint, this time against citizens who kept their garbage on the second or third floor of their residences and expected collectors to climb the stairs and remove the garbage.[31] The Board of Health approved a rule that garbage cans must be placed on the ground floor.

Skinner supplied Sanitary Superintendent Waring with a list of 130 persons who kept their garbage on upper floors; the Superintendent promised to notify them of the new ground floor rule. The garbage system “is not perfect, but if the people will tend their assistance it may be made so,” said Waring, hopefully. “If the householders will keep their garbage where it may be easily reached by the collectors, complaints will eventually cease. We are doing the best we can to satisfy the people.” The Times was still dissatisfied, pointing out the absurdity of requiring each family to have its own garbage can and not allowing for a common receptacle which could be kept at ground level for families living on upper floors.[32]

By July the Kansas City summer was in full bloom and complaints continued to flow into the Board of Health from all directions. Skinner complained he was making no money out of the garbage contract because of the unreliability of his workers, who were paid only $40 a month. The job attracted a class of men who quit “as soon as they get a few dollars ahead,” so he proposed paying the men on a percentage basis rather than a salary, hoping this would motivate them to be more diligent. [33] In addition, Skinner’s men sometimes lost the tickets they were given at the dump, on which his pay from the city was based; in June he lost almost $70 due to missing receipts. [34]

Even the amount Skinner was paid was disputed in city council. Alderman Johnston  protested  that the money should not be paid  “on the ground that many householders claimed that their garbage had not been emptied in two weeks or more, and Mr. Johnston in person had observed a garbage wagon plodding up the street with the driver playing on a fiddle and his assistant smoking a cigar.”[35]

In mid-July, the Board of Health commissioned a report on cases of complaints which found that nearly all were justified, the average length of time garbage remained uncalled for in those cases being from ten days to two weeks. The Board concluded that the number of complaints was not excessive, however, and Dr. Waring commented that Garbage Contractor Skinner was doing all he could to carry out the contract. “The trouble,” he said, “was with the worthless drivers. Some of the acts of the drivers are apparently pure malice. Complaints have been made that drivers have absolutely refused to remove garbage when asked to do so and continued to pass by the house without paying any attention to the request.”[36]  According to a Journal editorial, the garbage collectors were in addition “insulting to women with whom they come in contact in the performance of their duty. This should be stopped at once by the proper person or else the whole system should be declared a failure and a return made to the old system where each householder was compelled to see to the removal of his own garbage,”[37] which would of course mean a return to the trash-filled alleys and yards of the recent past.

Meanwhile, the garbage contractor’s was “running up alarmingly,” reported the Journal. For June, Skinner’s bill was $1,260; the bill for July was nearly double that amount,[38] and the August bill higher still.[39] It was discovered that more trash was being brought in from more distant and prosperous parts of town where the rate per load was highest. In the hard-scrabble First ward in the West Bottoms, only twenty-three loads were hauled, at $1.60 per load, while in the more affluent Ninth ward, bounded by Grand avenue and the eastern city limits, 110 loads were hauled at $2.25 per load. [40] Skinner’s men were known to cross ward lines to pick up more remunerative loads.

Still, Skinner complained, he was losing money all the time, as poachers continued to make off with the pick of the garbage to sell for hog feed, and his troubles with workers continued without end: “I have discharged over 300 men since I have been doing this work,” he told Dr. Waring. “I have had over fifty men leave their wagons in the alley and go their way, and never hear of them again….but under all the circumstances, with irresponsible collectors taking the pick of the city, and with drivers who can not be managed, I think I do well to miss only one house out of a thousand.”[41]

The Times didn’t agree with Skinner’s optimistic report. In an August article entitled “May do just as he likes,” referring to Skinner, the editors wrote that the contractor’s bills “keep increasing each month, yet everyone knows that the system is faulty… inefficient and inadequate to the needs of the city and in no way commensurate with the constantly increasing expense.” The Board of Health, it pointed out, had no system of inspection, relying entirely on individual complaints: “Either a better check on the garbage collection is needed, it is urged, or else inspectors must be appointed.”[42]

By October, tempers seemed to cool along with the weather. Complaints had diminished to an average of five a day in September, and the city’s contract with Mr. Skinner was due to expire at the end of the month. After that, “the little red wagons with their tinkling cow bells will not be seen or smelled on the streets until next spring,” reported the Times.[43] Residents would be back to taking care of their own garbage disposal until collection resumed. A relieved Assistant Sanitary Superintendent Waring reported there had been a big decrease in the amount of garbage collected during September, reflecting the end of the watermelon and green corn season, and a decrease also in sickness during the summer.

Waring attributed the more healthful condition to the new garbage system, “which, while it is far from perfect, is effective.” He proposed that new garbage districts be created so a uniform price could be paid for hauling.[44]  The Times summarized without comment Waring’s view that the garbage system had been a success, “in view of the fact that this has been its first trial in this city, and the complaints have been fewer than were expected.”[45]

Waring’s year-end report to the mayor began with a patriotic nod to the city’s advantages -- “a good climate, a natural drainage and a current of pure air from the Western prairies” -- before attributing improved health conditions mainly to his department’s ambitious sanitation work in 1893: “nearly 5,000 vaults cleaned, 1,000 built, sewer connections made, cellars, alleys and yards cleaned, and the garbage system removing nearly 7,000 loads of garbage.”  He stood by the new collection system: “At first there was trouble between the garbage collectors and householders, but the system was soon running smoothly.”

Waring’s report made an appeal for an increase in the number of sanitary officers.  Kansas City, he reminded the mayor, had “the smallest force in the sanitary department of any city in the country, and the sanitary officers of Kansas City do more work than those of any city in the country.”

And, he concluded -- thinking back on his problems with J.W. Skinner and his unreliable crew -- the city “should own its garbage teams so that a man could be held directly responsible for hauling in his district.”[46]



[1] “Tell them what we have.” Daily Journal, April 8, 1893, p. 4.

[2] “Clean and prosperous.” Daily Journal, April 4, 1893, p. 4.

[3] “Time to clean up.” Daily Journal, January 3, 1893, p. 4.

[4] "In good sanitary order.” Kansas City Times, December 27, 1893, p. 5.

[5] “Bad pavements.” Daily Journal, May 27, 1893, p. 4.

[6] “The necessity is now.” Daily Journal, January 5, 1893, p. 4.

[7] “Behind the times.” Kansas City Times, February 10, 1893, p. 3.

[8] “A dump suggested.” Daily Journal, February 16, 1893, p. 3.

[9] “Streets must be clean.” Kansas City Star, February 28, 1893, p. 1.

[10] “Keep up appearances.” Kansas City Star, March 1, 1893, p. 5.

[11] “A Foothold for Cholera.” Kansas City Star, February 20, 1893, p. 1.

[12] “Must obey the mandate.” Kansas City Times, March 3, 1893, p. 8.

[13] “To begin the cleaning.” Daily Journal, March 3, 1893, p. 4.

[14] “Must obey the mandate.” Kansas City Times, March 3, 1893, p. 8.

[15] “Two hundred loads a day.” Kansas City Star, April 12, 1893, p. 2.

[16] “’Little Italy’ redeemed.” Daily Journal, March 12, 1893, p. 3.

[17] “Garbage ordinance.” Daily Journal, March 25, 1893, p. 9.

[18] “For beauty and health.” Kansas City Times, April 4, 1893, p. 2.

[19] “Removal of garbage.” Daily Journal, May 9, 1893, p. 8.

[20] “Must not be oppressive.” Daily Journal, May 12, 1893, p. 3.

[21] "Householders have rights.” Kansas City Times, May 12, 1893, p. 2

[22] “Not a word on iron cans.” Kansas City Times, May 13, 1893, p. 3.

[23] “Charges a garbage combine.” Kansas City Times, April 29, 1893, p. 8.

[24] “Will be fully protected.” Kansas City Times, May 4, 1893, p. 3.

[25] “In his own behalf.” Daily Journal, August 25, 1893, p. 3.

[26] “Removal of garbage.” Daily Journal, May 9, 1893, p. 8.

[27] “Collecting garbage.” Daily Journal, May 20, 1893, p. 7.

[28]Garbage signboards.” Kansas City Times, May 26, 1893, p. 8.

[29] “Too much faultfinding.” Daily Journal, May 26, 1893, p. 4.

[30] “Complaints multiplying.” Daily Journal, June 13, 1893, p. 3.

[31] “Turned the tables.” Daily Journal, June 23, 1893, p. 3.

[32] “Garbage must come down.” Kansas City Times, June 23, 1893, p. 5.

[33] “Will try a new plan.” Daily Journal, July 1, 1893, p. 3.

[34] “Board of Health.” Kansas City Times, July 1, 1893, p. 8.

[35] “Owsley’s clerks.” Daily Journal, July 4, 1893, p. 3.

[36] “Garbage complaints.” Daily Journal, July 14, 1893, p. 3.

[37] “Garbage removal.” Daily Journal, August 19, 1893, p. 4.

[38] “The removal of garbage.” Daily Journal, July 25, 1893, p. 3.

[39] “May do just as he likes.” Kansas City Times, August 30, 1893, p. 8.

[40] “The removal of garbage.” Daily Journal, July 25, 1893, p. 3.

[41] “In his own behalf.” Daily Journal, August 25, 1893, p. 3.

[42] "May do just as he likes.” Kansas City Times, August 30, 1893, p. 8.

[43] “Each his own garbage man.” Kansas City Times, October 25, 1893, p. 8.

[44] “Very healthy summer.” Kansas City Times, October 4, 1893, p. 8.

[45] “Each his own garbage man.” Kansas City Times, October 25, 1893, p. 8.

[46] "In good sanitary order.” Kansas City Times, December 27, 1893, p. 5.

July 23, 2012