Trash piled up on Varick Street in New York (1893) before sanitation reform

By the nineteenth century, New York City was persistently and famously filthy. While other urban centers had begun to clean up their streets, approaching vessels could still smell New York far out to sea. Yet,  the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) was founded in 1881 as the Department of Street Cleaning and became one of the first sanitation agencies in the world that democratically cleaned and picked up snow from every street, regardless of socioeconomic class or neighborhood. One of the Department’s first Commissioners, Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., pioneered such current practices as recycling, street sweeping, and a dedicated uniformed cleaning and collection force called the White Wings.


Many people think it was vaccines that saved us from infectious disease. They’re mistaken. It was sanitation. We eventually figured it out and cleaned up our filth—which was the breeding ground.

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