The Original Mr. Clean: NYC's Least-Known Municipal Hero - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Original Mr. Clean: NYC's Least-Known Municipal Hero

The Original Mr. Clean: NYC's Least-Known Municipal Hero

By Farah Halime


Because he managed to clean up 2.5 million pounds of horse manure.

By Farah Halime

When the U.S. Congress needed the Capitol’s plumbing fixed, they knew who to call. When an upgrade of Memphis’ drainage system was required after a spate of yellow fever, the same man was hired, and when it came to the carefully crafted lakes and ponds of New York’s Central Park, there was only one man for the job.

Enter George E. Waring, a 19th-century agricultural chemist turned sanitation engineer — aka Mr. Clean — who put an end to sporadic cleanup efforts, and made curbside bins and recycling a reality. After Theodore Roosevelt turned down the job, the mustachioed Civil War veteran accepted the role of the city’s first sanitation commissioner in 1895 and managed to pull off the unthinkable task of cleaning the Big Apple.

Waring and his team of 2,000 white-uniformed cleaners — dubbed the White Wings — scrubbed the city clean of garbage heaps at least a couple feet deep, hills of coal dust, thousands of rotting animal carcasses and roughly 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine deposited on the streets by horses alone.

If it is not done thoroughly, it is not done at all.

George E. Waring

“He was a pioneer,” says Edward Humes, author of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash, which investigates the financial and environmental cost of waste production. “Waring’s genius was to just organize it, systemize it and extract the value of the waste stream to finance his own operations,” Humes explains. Waring arranged for horse carcasses to be sold for glue, horse manure to be sold for fertilizer and organic waste to be boiled down into oil and grease for industrial use, including leather tanning, mechanic lubrication and soap and candle manufacturing. Other refuse was sent to dumps along the waterfront, and Waring’s crew even shoveled snow, packing it into trucks and dumping it into rivers.

Just 16 months after he was named commissioner, Waring, who preferred his old Army title of “Colonel,”  transformed putrid-smelling drains and disease-infested New York City streets into pristine neighborhoods. “The asphalt pavement was absolutely clean. You could see the epidermis of the street,” one reporter wrote in 1895. The city celebrated his success — which politicians had long said was impossible — with a parade. Known as “an unabashed self-promoter,” Waring, according to Martin Melosi’s book, The Sanitary City, loved such adulation. With a taste for pomp and spectacle, a holdover from his military days, the clean fiend even took to trotting out a pair of white horses around the city’s parks each morning, to the annoyance of his superiors. 

George e. waring cph.3b15760

George e. waring

Source Public Domain

Still, his Army training served an important purpose: With military precision, Waring’s cleaning crew operated street by street, hour by hour, following a meticulous schedule. He served just three years as commissioner, but his impact was extensive, and similar sanitation programs were modeled in many other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia and Denver. Though cleanliness and a sense of pride were important attributes, Waring reimagined the role of the sanitation worker so that it was on par with the police and fire department. “It is not so much a skill of street cleaning,” Waring once said, “but particularly of patience and thoroughness, for if it is not done thoroughly, it is not done at all.” Robin Nagle, an anthropologist who worked as a uniformed sanitation worker to conduct research, says Waring “established a military hierarchy and chain of command that is still in place.”

Despite the rise of mass consumerism, producing ever more waste and filling landfills across waterfronts, Waring and his team continued the upkeep of New York City, evoking enthusiasm even from early critics like Jacob Riis, who declared that Waring’s “broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors.” This far outpaced efforts in places like England, where authorities barely managed to limit the growing refuse piles, in an era when consumers were being invited to throw away increasingly more highly packaged goods, according to Tom Licence, a history professor at England’s University of East Anglia. 

Today, in a new world of heavy consumption, New York City’s Department of Sanitation continues to use many of Waring’s practices. But it’s now faced with a whopping 3.2 million tons of trash annually, which even Waring’s methodical system couldn’t manage. He may have been a sanitation hero at the time, but he “didn’t limit it; he just managed it,” says Humes. “We need to change the way we make stuff to eliminate waste. We need a new Edison, a new Waring, a Steve Jobs,” he says. “A totally new approach.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories