It was never one of the top ten wishes of my life, but as a boy I kind of wondered whether I wouldn’t like to drive the street sweeper. This was a tanklike one-person vehicle with a spinning brush underneath, which went along the street sweeping the dust so that…well, I don’t know what, exactly, the purpose was of swirling the dust from here to there. This is why I never sweep my apartment floor,. But to be the monarch of the road, sweeping along at a slow, relentless speed…in winter, of course, it would have to be a snowplow, but that didn’t have a brush. If we ever do get flying cars, as promised for years in science fiction, I shall be very disappointed if they do not have brushes on the bottom.
My mind drifted in this direction as I was going through a stack of horse postcards. Some of these were horse portraits, while others dealt with horses in the wild, but the majority showed the horse working for human beings. And I noticed that the theme of street cleaning was a constant.
I am a little puzzled by the number of “I’m on the wagon” postcards. If the phrase is too antique for you, it means a person who has sworn off alcoholic beverages: it took over from the phrase “I’ve taken the pledge”, which meant the same thing but was more of a nineteenth century phrase. (The pledge was an actual document you signed, but not everyone who spoke of taking it had gone to the trouble of signing it.) The expression has been ascribed to a number of unlikely inspirations (the tumbril which carried the condemned to the gallows, a wagon the police used to pick up drunks on Sunday morning) but it evidently derives from the custom of sending a wagon through the streets of our cities to sprinkle water on the pavement. This was to keep down the dust, and perhaps dilute some of the less innocent liquids found in a city’s thoroughfares.
The person credited with first using the phrase in literature is, of all people, Alice Hegan Rice, whose bestseller Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch was a phenomenon for about fifty years after its appearance in 1904. You don’t see it much on reading lists now. But whether she originated the phrase (she wrote “water cart”) or just reported it, it swept the nation. (It was a humorous novel, and maybe the jokes haven’t aged well. The joke in the postcard above, with the sender writing “Spring” above the word “Water”, is only understandabale if you look at the back of the card and see it was mailed from Springwater, New York.)
What I don’t understand is why you would send people a card announcing your current opinion of booze. Most of these date from not long after Mrs. Wiggs made her appearance, and even by then, the most common use of the phrase was referring to somebody falling OFF the wagon, meaning they had let their thirst get the better of them.
Of course, as you knew the moment I connected horses and street cleaning, there is another connection, seen more often in cards from midcentury. This is because our ancestors lived closer to horses than we do, and horses have a major role on humorous postcards.
I do not know when our ancestors started hiring people to get the horse pollution off the streets, nor do I know why it waits until the 1930s and 1940s to make it onto postcards. You will see the theme in a number of classic animated cartoons of the same era. Maybe it was a touch of nostalgia, as the days of horse traffic were drawing to a close.
In fact, a number of the postcards have to specify that the scene is set in a place where horses can astill expect to be found in large numbers. There was the cavalry, of course.
And, of course, the racetrack. This location gave the cartoonist a chance to use the “following the horses” gag as well as the one about “cleaning up”. (Translation for the ridiculously young: “betting regularly and scientifically on horse races” and “making a lot of money”.)
Though, as time goes by, the man with the broom was moved to the other side of the fence, thus, in a way, cleaning up the joke.
But the joke went on ion its original form, I suspect, because it allowed the sender to comment on his job. (Speaking of which, you do know the ancient joke about the man who cleaned up after the elephants in the circus? I’;ll repeat it anyway. See, he hated it: the stench, the humiliation of such an occupation, and complained bitterly about it to his friends until one asked, “So why don’t you quit?”
“What?” he demanded. “And give up show business?”)