Horses were key to urbanization in Montreal in the late 1800s

A horse and sulky belonging to a Mr. Grant on the grounds of McGill University in 1900.

A horse and sulky belonging to a Mr. Grant on the grounds of McGill University in 1900.

Credit: McCord Museum

In 5 seconds

In her master’s thesis, history student Catherine Paulin reinterprets the interdependent relationships between Montrealers and their horses at the turn of the 20th century.

Over 100 years ago, horses, cows, pigs, sheep and chickens were an integral part of everyday life in Montreal. How did Montrealers interact with these animals in urban public spaces?

Catherine Paulin explored the topic as part of her master’s degree research at Université de Montréal’s History Department, supervised by Professor Michèle Dagenais.

Paulin's work earned her a Government of Canada History Award. The program honours the exceptional work of university students studying history.

Interdependence ... and annoyance

In late 19th century Montreal, horses and horse-drawn vehicles were the primary means of transportation for people and goods. With the advent of industrialization and the job boom that resulted, the city then saw a wave of migration from the countryside.

The presence of animals in increasingly populated neighbourhoods in the city was commonplace at the time, since Montrealers largely relied on them for subsistence.

“Animals lived in the city and influenced the activities of residents and the development of their city," said Paulin. "Montrealers were dependent on horses, the ‘machines’ that kept the city running in the 19th century.”

Poring over the City of Montreal’s archives, looking at by-laws and annual reports, Paulin found that, at the time, animals were mostly deemed nuisances that needed to be strictly controlled. Indeed, as of the late 1880s, pigs, cows and sheep became less visible in the urban landscape – and sometimes were even prohibited.

Paulin came to understand why this happened by going deeper into the archives. She studied vintage photos kept at the McCord Museum and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (BAnQ), maps produced by fire insurance companies, and 19th century police reports. She also consulted newspaper articles and documents from the McGill University archives and the Montreal Parks and Playgrounds Association collection.

“The more Montreal became industrialized, the more draught horses were moved away from the central and upper-class neighbourhoods, which mirrored the relationships between the inhabitants themselves,” Paulin explained.

The archival material clearly shows that carriage horses disturbed residents of the city back then; some actually filed complaints about how smelly they were. “The smells were bothersome and associated with miasmas and risk of contagion," Paulin said.

The end of the 19th century saw the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which “besides the moral aspect, was also concerned with the economic impact of animals for those who earn their living with them, whether for work or to produce food," the researcher said.  Montreal’s slaughterhouses were also moved to the outskirts during this time.

Horses a symbol of social division

Of all the animals that cohabited with Montrealers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, horses are the ones most commonly seen in photos from the time.

From the archives, Paulin was able to understand the nature of the relationship between city dwellers and horses, determining who was entitled to what space in Montreal's urban landscape.

City by-laws maps produced by fire insurance companies showed that carriages and horses were gradually restricted from congregating around Mount Royal, and were eventually moved elsewhere.

“The carriage driver, his horse and his vehicle were considered as a single unit in legislation,” Paulin said. “They were allowed to travel through, but not to stop. This was to avoid disturbing the peace and interfering in the leisure activities of the bourgeoisie and the elite who frequented or lived on Mount Royal, especially around McGill University.”

Similarly, complaints to the police resulted in carriage stations being moved several times, further and further away from Mount Royal, and the number of horses each could accommodate was restricted.

Extensive and diverse archives

The archives Paulin consulted are extensive, and their diversity is central to her research. They offer a wealth of detail about the historical, spatial and relational dynamics that existed between Montrealers and horses, which until now were relatively unknown.

“They reflect a less human-centred view of that era of Montreal’s history and show that the transformations the city has undergone over time – regulations, architecture, street design – can be attributed not only to humans but also to animals.”

And according to Paulin, these past relationships mirror the dichotomy in relationships today between Montrealers and their animals, “as evidenced by the debates about pit bulls and horse-drawn carriages in Old Montreal.”

  • Tandem drive on Mount Royal Park around 1890.

    Credit: McCord Museum
  • A public carriage in Montreal around 1875.

    Credit: McCord Museum
  • Catherine Paulin

    Credit: Amélie Philibert

The Government of Canada History Award

Catherine Paulin’s graduate research recently earned her a Government of Canada History Award (University category), which comes with a $2,000 cash prize.

Ms. Paulin applied for the award in January by submitting a summary of her thesis. The jury was particularly impressed by the quality of her historical analysis and the innovative approach of her work


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