Facts That Figure: Shovels

Facts That Figure: Shovels

By C.G. Hoffman

With snow in the forecast, New Yorkers are stocking up on salt, boots, and, of course, shovels. Whether the snow will be just a sprinkle or a really big one, it makes good sense to have a sturdy shovel ready, just in case.

The history of shovels is as old as the history of digging. When people started farming, they needed something strong enough to hack through the packed earth and wide enough to lift a good amount of earth. Animal bones derived from large animals, such as oxen, served the purpose perfectly.

Shovels were used extensively in the Avodah of the Bais Hamikdash. Copper shovels were used to bring burning coals into the Heichal for the Ketores. On Yom Kippur, golden shovels were used to bring it into the Kodesh Kedoshim.

For most of history, snow wasn’t cleaned up. It was simply gone over. In colder climates where, for much of the winter, the population was snowed in, wagon drivers switched their wagons for sleds, which slid effortlessly over the packed snow and lakes that had turned to ice. The snow was actually great for transportation, as the ski-like runners would fly over the snow much faster than going through the mud in the spring!

In Victorian London, bands of itinerant shovelmen would offer their services at up to 10 times the going rate. They often worked hand-in-hand with the London police, where the police would hand homeowners a citation, and the shovelmen would seemingly miraculously show up and offer their services to the relieved homeowners, giving the cops a fat cut afterward, of course.

By the mid-1800s, cities were growing in population, and city streets needed to be cleared of snow in order for business to go on. Early snow plows were horsedrawn and deposited the snow in huge piles on street corners, necessitating the need for it to be shoveled to manually remove the piled-up drifts. In New York, snow removal was the responsibility of the police department.

The massive blizzard of 1888 meant that cities had to get serious about snow removal. The gargantuan blizzard dumped four feet of snow over parts of the Northeast. Carts were abandoned in the middle of the street, people were trapped in their homes for up to a week, and over 400 people died. Cities increased their supply of plows and divided the cities into sections to be more systematically covered. The blizzard might have even led to the creation of the first subways, as Boston installed its first underground subway tracks in 1899, with New York following five years later.

You’ve got to admire the Chicago snow removers of 1907, if not for their sterling honesty, at least for their ingenuity. These workers found a way to make more money in a city notorious for corruption. They were paid by the cart-full to collect snow and dump it into the lake. They would dump only part of their load, “necessitating” their return. They ended up making more trips and getting paid more!

Notoriously corrupt Boston Mayor James Curley had a brilliant way of taking care of the snow. Called “crooked as a pretzel,” he had sold off much of the city’s snow clearing equipment in one of his schemes. When asked what he was doing about the snow, he said, “What the L-rd giveth, the L-rd taketh away!”

By 1925 there were 17.5 million cars registered in the USA. America had entered the automobile era, meaning roads had to be smooth. The dependence on cars also meant that people had to travel farther to buy food, get to work, and get to medical care. Car-mounted snowplows were invented in the 1920s and became more efficient with time. Trucks mounted with snow plows while simultaneously equipped with salt-spreading machines cleared the roads for cars to pass safely.

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