From Taboo to “Ecoterrorism” – Horsemeat’s Troubled Political History in America

I’ve written something for The Atlantic‘s Object Lessons blog on the long (if potted!) history of horsemeat in America. A much fuller account is on offer in The Age of the Horse!

During World War II food shortages, horse meat once again found its way to American tables, but the post-war backlash was rapid. “Horse meat” became a political insult. “You don’t want your administration to be known as a horse meat administration, do you?” the former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia demanded of his successor William O’Dwyer. President Truman was nicknamed “Horse meat Harry” by Republicans during food shortages in the run up to the 1948 “Beefsteak Election.” In 1951, reporters asked if there would be a “Horse meat Congress,” one “that put the old gray mare on the family dinner table.” When Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1952, he was also taunted as “Horse meat Adlai” thanks to a Mafia scam uncovered in Illinois when he was governor.

The Flesh of Foals

When the 2013 horsemeat scandal broke I was surprised and then realised I had nothing to be surprised about. By that stage I’d been researching the history of horsemeat on and off for seven years for The Age of the Horse, and I’d noticed a pattern going back centuries both to these episodes and to public reaction to it. It’s the same in America in the nineteenth century, in France in the seventeenth century, in England in the fifteenth century… and so on.

This Pathé news reel from 1948 is almost a checklist:

  • horsemeat passed off as “blackmarket steaks” and “veal” in cheap restaurants
  • the meat men or kill buyers are unconcerned with the welfare of the horses
  • “a traffic so alien” to the locals

I think Pathé and the British public of 1948 may be protesting a wee bit too much with their “veal, the flesh of foals” and “sinister trade”: horsemeat was eaten in Britain before, during and after World War Two – it was one way to cope with rationing. Yorkshiremen were even nicknamed “kicker eaters” because of their taste for chevaline. Pathé was, however, right that a tremendous number of horses were slaughtered in the late 1940s, and that the Shire and Clydesdale would be facing extinction in a few decades.

Horses were still needed by farmers at the time because we were still dealing with fuel shortages and the era of the tractor had not yet fully begun. They were also still important to the railway system – that same year, British railways kept 9,000 working horses. However, the urban market pretty much collapsed in the late 1940s and so we had a horsemeat scandal – only this time we ate them ourselves, rather than dispatching them to Belgium on “sausage boats” as we did in the 1920s.

Fast forward five decades and we still haven’t worked out what to do with unwanted horses, and we find ourselves eating them in lasagna.

British Cavalry in North Africa in 1940?

According to Getty, this is a British cavalry charge in North Africa, c. 1940. I can’t find any reference to the British having cavalry there at that time, so if anyone knows the story behind this picture I’d love to know more. I can only find a mention of the last Household Cavalry mounted expedition, which took place in the Middle East in 1941. This photo looks as though it was a very staged “charge”.

The Emininently Recyclable Horse

 

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From Internet Archive’s scan of The Anatomy and Physiology of the Horse (1863) via Wiki Commons

In The Age of the Horse I gave readers some idea of the ingenuity humans used to recycle the bodies of horses used in the nineteenth century west. Of course, this inventiveness was not restricted to the Victorian era nor to the more rapidly industrialised nations – and we’re still finding new uses for horses’ bodies. Here is a brief, morbid and often suprising list of them, from armour to face lifts.

Hide

As shelters in the eighteenth century by the Puelche and Pehuenche of Argentina and Chile. (Horse Nations: The worldwide impact of the horse on indigenous societies post-1492, by Peter Mitchell, 2015, p281)

The skin from colts’ and mares’ lower legs were used to make gauchos’ “bota de potro” footwear. (Mitchell, 2015, p282)

Drumheads; Blackfoot Indians, (The Role of the Horse in Man’s Culture, by Harold B Barclay, 1980, p177)

Leather for covering large boardroom and office tables (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)

“Leather guards on [German] cavalry trousers”, carriage roofs or whip lashes. (The Horse-World of London by W J Gordon, 1893, p187)

Shoe leather or “porpoise hide”  (“Horse Meat for Food” by Frank G Carpenter, The National Tribune, 19 January 1893, p9)

Saddles and boot tops (twentieth century America)

For making braided reins, bridles, girths, cruppers and whips in Kazakhstan. (Barclay, 1980, p319)

Bags and shoe soles in Mongolia (Barclay, 1980, p302)

Cordovan leather, shield and buckler parts, coat worn under armour, harness (Barclay, 1980, p133)

Fat

Distilled for use in lamps, etc. (Waste Products and Undeveloped Substances: Or, Hints for Enterprise in Neglected Fields by Peter Lund Simmonds, 1862, p364)

In skin care products in South Korea (Shark, 2017).

Intestines

Sausage skins, gut strings (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Bones

Grease and bones burned for fuel on the Pampas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (Barclay, 1980, p187)

“Lucifer matches” (Simmonds, 1862, p340)

Knife handles, phosphorus, super-phosphate of lime (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Oil for candlemaking, leather dressing and lubricating. (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Ground and mixed with sulphuric acid for fertiliser, or simply ground into bone meal for manure making. (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Button-making (Gordon, 1893, p186)

Ribs and scapulae for smoothing clay pots, cannon bones for spear heads, jawbones to scrape leather thongs, pastern bones to make ornaments. (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)

Teeth

As necklaces by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Tendons

Glue and gelatine (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

“Nithya” – a botox-like cosmetic treatment that stimulates the cells that produce collagen.

Hair of Mane, Tail

Tapestry making, girths, ropes, fetters, collars for horses and cattle, shoe covers, rain hats and fishing nets in Buryatia, Siberia.

Hair-cloth, mattress stuffing, woven into bags for crushing seed in oil mills (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Furniture stuffing, fishing lines. (Gordon, 1893, p187)

Plaited to make ropes, nets, lassoes and fly whisks by the Yakut of Siberia, who also use it for decorative work and stuffing saddles. (Barclay, 1980, p327)

Tipi decorations among some Native American groups (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Clothing or harness decoration by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

The shirts of penitents (Barclay, 1980, p133)

Mixed with rubber to create “hairloch”, which was used as padding for the equipment dropped into Occupied France for use by the Special Operations Executive in World War Two (The Women who Lived for Danger, Marcus Binney, 2002, p26)

As crests for helmets (Ancient Greece, Persia) and on war standards carried by the Mongolian Army.

For bows for violins, cellos, double basses, violas and other stringed instruments (fascinating facts to be found here) including the Mongolian morin khuur or horse-head fiddle.

Callouses/Chestnuts (?)

Used in perfume making by the Blackfoot (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Flesh

Boiled for men, dogs and poultry (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Cat and dog meat (Gordon, 1893, p187)

Fed to animals on fur farms (Horse meat for fur farms: its chemical composition by Sedgwick E Smith, Washington, Department of the Interior, 1940)

Fed to zoo animals in Central Park (The Daily Yellowstone Journal, 2nd December 1887, p1)

Fed to hunting hounds (UK)

Fed to pigs raised at knackers yards and sold for commercial pork-pie making in the UK (Among Horses in Russia by Captain M H Hayes, 1900)

Hoofs

Trimmings turned into funeral wreaths (Luc Sante’s The Other Paris); bright blue dye (Simmonds, 1862, p340)

Gelatine, prussiate, “fancy snuff boxes” (Simmonds, 1862, p364)

Glue, blue-maker manufacture (Gordon, 1893, p186)

As pendants by some Native American groups, (Barclay, 1980, p177)

Armour – “These mares [the Sarmatians use] not only use for war, but also sacrifice them to the local gods and eat them for food. Their hoofs they collect, clean, split, and make from them as it were python scales. . . . These pieces they bore and stitch together with the sinews of horses and oxen, and then use them as breastplates that are as handsome and strong as those of the Greeks. For they can withstand blows of missiles and those struck in close combat.” (Description of Greece, Pausanias, translated by W H S Jones)

Blood

Button manufacture; albumen extracted and used for making photographs  (Carpenter, 1893, p9)

Dung

For making cores/loose internal parts of casting moulds in foundries “in some foreign countries” (Simmonds, 1862, p368)

Collected, moulded into cakes for fuel and sold (China) (Simmonds, 1862, p369)

To insulate roofs (Copper Age Botai culture, Kazakhstan)

Urine

For making PreMarin, a hormone used to allay menopause symptoms and in feminizing hormone therapy for transwomen.

Boiled to preserve seeds, in a mythical Chinese pharmacopoeia.

Bezoar (a solid mass that forms in the digestive tract of some animals)

“It has the medicinal properties of settling fright and resolving phlegm, clearing heat and dispelling poisons. It is used to treat internal proliferation of phlegm-heat, manic depression (diankuang) and fright epilepsy (jingxian), malign poisons, ulcers and swellings, disturbances of consciousness, etc.” (Bencao gangmu, a Chinese Systematic Materia Medica by Li Shizhen, 1590)

Horse-shoes

Shipped to China, straightened and sharpened into razors (Carpenter, 1893, p9)

Horse-shoe Nails

“Horse-shoe nails, kicked about the world by horses innumerable, are not the useless fragments we might naturally deem them. Gun-makers tell us that no iron is so well fitted for their purpose as that which is derived from horse-shoe nails and similar worn fragments. The nails are, in the first instance, made of good sound iron, and the violent concussions they receive when a horse is walking over a stony road, give a peculiar annealing and toughnening to the metal, highly beneficial to its subsequent use for gun-barrels” (Simmonds, 1862, p418)

Body

If you’ve had your horse cremated, the cremains can be transformed into diamonds or glass jewellery as a keepsake.

Alternatively, the horse can be allowed to break down into compost.