On a cold winter day in 1919, passersby pausing to catch their breath amid the chaos of the holiday season encountered an unusual spectacle in Boston’s Post Office Square. A Christmas tree, decorated with corn, translucent ornaments and red banners, read “Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” (MSPCA). Apples rested in barrels nearby, and bushels of oats lined the square. Workhorses surrounded the tree, nibbling at the food as a man shouted at those nearby to help him unload his truck. Gesturing at the vehicle, he joked that he didn’t own a horse himself but still believed the animals had “their uses.” Shoppers pitched in, stacking 40 to 50 crates of carrots at the foot of the tree and helping to cut the carrots into bite-size pieces. “[A]ltogether,” the Rutland News reported on December 29, “it looked like a big day for the horses of the city.”
During this era, when horse-powered carts made way for motor vehicles, humane societies held equine-themed parties like this one in locales like Detroit, Kansas City, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Planned to heighten awareness of workhorses’ poor living conditions and offer the animals a holiday respite, the events offered the public an opportunity to interact with the creatures whose labor jumpstarted the urban economy while appreciating them as compatriots deserving of kindness.
“It is surprising what a unifying effect such a thing as the tree for horses has on men and women of all stations in life,” wrote the Rutland News reporter taking in the Boston scene in 1919. “... It is safe to venture that every [person] who snatched a few moments out of a busy day, to go down and take a share in seeing that the dumb animals were given added comfort, went home with a bit of extra warmth about the heart.”
According to Ann Norton Greene, author of the 2008 book Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, horses were “the power source that drove urban America” between the 1850s and 1920s. She adds, “Upper-class and upper middle–class people are forming humane societies, and one primary focus of attention was workhorses. [People are] seeing horses pulling streetcars and wagons and getting a variety of treatment.”
As industrialization and the subsequent arrival of automotive trucks began to render workhorses obsolete, humane societies sought to publicize the animals’ continued presence in cities and ensure that drivers treated them with care. Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), actually started the organization in 1866 after seeing a cart horse beaten in the street; the group’s seal depicts an angel preventing an abuser from hitting his horse.
Caring for animals soon became associated with protecting people, too. As historian Diane L. Beers wrote in the 2006 book For the Prevention of Cruelty, few during the Progressive Era “drew sharp distinctions between animal abuse, child abuse and domestic abuse, believing instead that each fed on and perpetuated the other.” Workhorse Christmas parties both increased people’s understanding that the animals were in need and reminded their drivers more generally not to place them in harm’s way. By offering food and drink to drivers, humane societies called attention to the connection between humans and horses.
“The types of issues being confronted were harness sores, beatings, overloading, undernourishment, reckless driving, [and] injured or diseased horses. It was about the horses’ work lives in a full sense,” says Kendra Coulter, a labor studies expert at Brock University in Ontario. “It’s important to recognize that many drivers tried to treat horses with more compassion and saw them as coworkers or partners, but also that horses’ suffering was widespread and common.”
She adds, “Some drivers were ignorant, some were indifferent [and] some were cruel. Some employers set conditions that forced drivers to push their horses to the brink. Some horses would die in the streets while at work.”
According to Coulter, horse welfare initiatives like Christmas parties “focused on drivers as well as community members. The organizations worked to cultivate a culture of compassion that would help improve direct human-horse relations and to build public support for political and legal changes,” like passing anti-animal cruelty legislation. “At the time,” she says, “people needed horses’ labor. The goal was to make those horses’ jobs and work-lives as positive as possible.”
Though they differed depending on year, organizer and location, Christmas horse parties typically shared a few common characteristics: an equine-friendly menu, a holiday tree and treats for human companions. Food and gifts were provided by humane societies, which were, in turn, supported through charitable donations. An annual party in Kansas City, for instance, was funded by a $10,000 bequest from philanthropist Emma Robinson, whose “motivating force in life [was] an unflagging compassion for all helpless creatures,” as the Kansas City Times noted in her 1932 obituary.
On Christmas Eve in 1918, volunteers with the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) festooned a tree with hay, corn, carrots and apples in preparation for a party. (The dinner couldn’t be held on Christmas itself, as the horses, theoretically, would be stabled and resting on the holiday.) They poured hot coffee for the horses’ drivers as the animals chewed oats out of portable troughs. Despite the rain, guests seemed to enjoy themselves. Organizers claimed that they’d served food to several hundred horses at various market sites around D.C. Four years later, in 1922, a new batch of league volunteers drove around the capital in a truck adorned with greenery and filled with alfalfa hay, searching “alleys and market places in search [of] hungry horses,” according to the Washington Post. About 250 horses participated in the day’s festivities.
In 1928, volunteers with WARL sought donations so that the group could buy at-risk horses, including lame or elderly animals that could no longer pull carts. One activist spent $3.50 (about $57 today) on the neediest horse she could find. At the league’s party, he began eating at noon and was still “munching away” at 4 p.m., consuming about four times as much as horses fed regularly, per the Washington Post.
Further north, in Boston’s Post Office Square, a lively trio attended a 1923 iteration of MSPCA’s annual event: a police horse named Dan, a 22-year-old workhorse named Snibber who liked to eat a doughnut every morning, and a 24-year-old workhorse named Daisy who communicated her age by pawing at the ground. John Bergh, who drove Daisy, told the Boston Globe that she’d kicked and bit when they first met but quickly grew fond of him; Bergh kept his pockets filled with sugar for her.
In 1925, the eighth year of the MSPCA’s tree tradition, volunteers distributed 100 bushels of oats, 25 bushels of carrots, 25 bushels of apples and 300 pounds of corn in one day. Dan attended again, patiently abstaining from kicking a child who was hugging his leg. George and Frank, both retired grocers’ horses, stood by the Christmas tree and allowed people to feed them sugar all day. Per a 1991 Associated Press (AP) report, Boston was home to some 8,000 horses during the 1920s—the heyday of these Christmas horse parties.
In 1926, Baltimore’s Animal Refuge Association hosted an approximately 200-horse party featuring specially ventilated, feed-filled nose bags that enabled the animals to eat and breathe comfortably. Volunteers also handed out polished-brass bridle browbands engraved with the association’s initials. The party, wrote the Baltimore Sun, “awoke in hundreds of passing Baltimoreans memories of days when the horse was king of a considerable world, so that literally scores of these passersby stopped for a word with members of the association.”
This sense of nostalgia typified the time, says Greene. Party organizers were eager to capitalize on widespread yearning for the past to call attention to horses’ labor and encourage gentle treatment of the animals. “People in the 20th century are caught between their desire for progress and the desire for sentimentality about the past,” she explains. “They are sentimental, but they are also quite serious.”
Christmas parties continued through the 1930s, even as cars displaced horses on city streets. In New York, cats, horses and birds attended the same 1930 party. (A canary accepted birdseed and candy.) A decade later, during World War II, MSPCA reminded potential donors that wartime fuel restrictions meant more horses were at work than in recent years. Parties continued to wane along with workhorses but lingered in at least one city, Chicago, into the 1960s.
By then, says Coulter, urban horses pulled tourist carriages, carried police officers or served in “urban riding clubs. Animal welfare organizations’ work shifted with the changing nature of human-animal relationships and began to focus more on companion animals like dogs and cats, especially at the local level. ... In cities where carriage horses still work, their labor and work-lives continue to be a source of interest and debate.” (The death last winter of one of New York City’s roughly 200 registered carriage horses reignited the controversy, with critics of the industry arguing that modern city streets are ill-suited for the animals and supporters emphasizing drivers’ deep bonds with their horses.)
Christmas parties for horses underscored the complexity of the relationship between animals and people, pulling city dwellers toward the workhorses who labored, sometimes unseen, in urban environments every day. To quote again from the Rutland News report: “Men who, hurrying about on last-minute errands, stopped for a moment on a distant sidewalk to see what it was all about, felt a nameless tug at their sense of humaneness and, with different grins, came over to the center of the square.”
Whether they were chopping carrots or simply watching the horses eat, everyday people were drawn toward the idea of celebrating animals’ labor. Like all good parties, the workhorse holiday events offered food, drink and—perhaps most importantly—unlikely encounters that held the potential for enduring connection.