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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Hogs of New York

Updated: May 15, 2022

"Our wives and daughters cannot walk abroad through the streets of the city without encountering the most disgusting spectacles of these animals indulging in the propensities of nature."

- New York City Mayor Cadwallader Golden, 1818

Pigs as we know them were brought to North America by European colonists. There were no members of the swine family in the New World. The native peccary or javelina was often mistaken for wild pigs by early explorers and settlers, but they are of a different family from swine. Pigs played an integral role in the life of the colonists. Hogs were a food staple. They did not need a lot of maintenance. They were not fussy eaters and could forage indiscriminately for food. They were more efficient than other livestock in converting feed into meat. Four good sized hogs could last a family through an entire winter. People used all parts of the hog, not just the meat. Blood for blood pudding. Intestines as sausage casings. Fat for lard. Hogs quickly became a ubiquitous part of the landscape even in nascent urban centers such as New York.

Hogs were an ever-present sight in most urban areas, and New York City was no exception. Prior to the American Revolution, most hogs were kept on farms or remained out in sparsely populated areas away from the city. This began to change in the 1790s as New York's post-Revolution population began to grow. The city expanded and much of this farmland was bought for real estate development. For the developing underclass, hogs were a vital economic commodity. They were a good source of protein that cost very little to raise. With no place to keep them in the growing urban center, poor New Yorkers allowed their hogs to roam the streets freely. Early on, when population densities were small, the hogs were tolerated. They acted as a sanitation crew eating spoiled food, offal, and other refuse that piled in the streets. During the first quarter of the 19th century, changes were happening that would force New York to face their hog problem.

In the decades following the Revolution, New York City began establishing itself as the financial and commercial capital of the new republic. Land speculation, banking, the stock exchange, and increase overseas trade brought large amounts of wealth into the city. At the same time, though, the city saw an increase in immigration especially the Irish. In this time period, New York became the fastest growing city in the United States. From about 60 thousand in 1800 to nearly 200,000 thousand by the end of the 1820s.

The opening of the Erie Canal would hasten New York's emergence as a major economic hub. The wealthy no longer wished to live within the commercial areas of the city or near the growing low-income areas populated by immigrants. An exodus began that pushed the boundaries of the city northward from the tip of Manhattan. City leaders started to take an interest in improving the image of the city, strengthening the bureaucracy, and increasing property values. (Property taxes became the main source of income for the city.) In addition, after epidemics of yellow fever and cholera, there was a growing awareness for better public sanitation. Swine were considered disease carriers because they rooted around in the garbage and refuse in the streets. Beyond that, the pigs destroyed pavement, blocked traffic, and caused accidents. The city needed to address the issue of hogs freely roaming the streets.

Not everyone, though, participated in the economic growth of the city. Artisans and laborers, many of whom were African-Americans or Irish immigrants, still struggled to find steady work and a living wage. These were the people who lived on the cusp of poverty. These were the majority of the pig owners. And it was the working-class wives who oversaw the keeping of the hogs. For them, swine represented a safety net against hard times. Not only were they a source of food, but a source of cash as well. Butchers were always willing to buy hogs because pork was a staple of the American diet.

In 1818, a city grand jury indicted Christian Harriet, a butcher, as a public nuisance for keeping hogs on the streets. Harriet hired a lawyer who argued that social practices that have been customary for an "immemorial duration" could not be considered a nuisance unless they went against standards held in common by the entire population. Pigs might offend upper-class society, but the poor viewed them differently. Swine were a source of food and income. The food factor was ruled irrelevant, Harriet was convicted, and in 1821, the city began rounding up of the so-called "swinish multitude". City officials were met by an army of Irish and African-American women who fought back against the seizure of their property. More riots occurred in 1825, 1826, 1830, and 1832. The city temporarily suspended their efforts.

A cholera outbreak in 1849 brought about a change in attitudes and a heightened concern over public sanitation. The city was able to finally remove pigs from the streets of Manhattan. Many pig farms, or piggeries, relocated to the more rural and undeveloped parts of the city. But they still caused debate. These piggeries were vital to the survival of immigrant families. They collected the waste from city slaughterhouses or the streets. They boiled down the offal, fat, and bones, and they sold what they processed to local manufacturing: bone for toothbrushes and buttons, blood for sugar refining, tallow or fat for candles and soap, for example. They fed the pigs the leftovers and sold them to butchers. Yet agriculture, within an urban environment, was not well regarded. The city relied on it but wanted it pushed to outlying areas where it could not be seen.

In 1859, the new City Inspector, Danial Delavan, organized the most effective removal of the maligned porcine beasts in the so-called "Piggery War". After the city passed a new law banning pig farms anywhere south of today's 86th Street, troops of inspectors and police visited the piggeries, most of which were located near what is mid-town Manhattan. They gave the owners three days in which to destroy any evidence of pig raising or else the police would return and do it for them. And the police did return armed with guns and clubs as well as tools for dismantling sheds and pig pens. They expected resistance, but despite the war metaphors in the newspapers, the authorities encountered very little. Incidentally, it was women who were more likely to strike back by taking up clubs and other weapons to defend their property. The New York Herald reported, for example, in somewhat comical fashion, of a German woman attacking a policeman with a tinpot.

In the end, the "swinish multitude" was removed. The conflict over the hogs of New York highlighted issues that modern urban centers still grapple with today. That is gentrification, the transform of neighborhoods to attract affluent people and businesses, at the expense of the urban poor. The hogs in New York represented the last vestiges of self-sufficiency for those living within the city. With the removal of the pigs, a whole new class of urban working-class poor was created. A class that would often be dependent upon charity, government programs, and crime in order to survive.


For more on hogs and the history of New York City:

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898: Edward Burrows and Mike Wallace

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