clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

New York's 1888 blizzard had smallpox, bonfires, and rubber boot shortages

A streetcar during the 1888 blizzard.
A streetcar during the 1888 blizzard.
Herbert A. French/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The current blizzard in the Northeast is likely to be huge. But at least cities like New York are ready. Things were very different back in 1888.

That year, New York City got 21 inches of snow in early March — still the third-worst snowstorm in the city's history. And it was a terrifying experience for the people there, in part because so many things went horribly, unexpectedly wrong.

1) The smallpox ambulance broke down ... and so did the undertakers' carriages

Police in the blizzard

Police helping passersby during the 1888 blizzard. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

Today we still have to worry about traffic delays and icy roads. But in 1888, you had to worry about the smallpox ambulance breaking down.

After the storm hit, the New York Sun reported on the ambulance breakdown. Four patients were inside, and the ambulance crew had to mount sleighs. To repeat: In 1888, you could have smallpox and have to mount a sleigh to reach the hospital.

That wasn't the only vehicle stopped by inclement weather. Undertakers had to delay funerals and specially request an extension for how long they were allowed to keep corpses above ground.

2) Coal shortages broke out ... and prices soared

People freezing during the blizzard

People struggling to walk during the 1888 blizzard. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

Today it's harder to run out of heat in New York. But in 1888, the blizzard caused coal prices to soar, due to high demand and price gouging speculators.

Not only was it difficult to find coal, it was difficult to move it, too. Workers had to push "two-wheeled tip carts" of coal through the city streets, which earned them a reputation as the first to discover clear routes through the snow. Those who didn't have tip carts improvised: The New York Sun reported on one boy who improvised a sled and used his Newfoundland dog to help him drag it along.

Some things about the winter shortages, however, are the same as ever. Surge pricing was in effect, more than 100 years before Uber, as the Sun noted "fancy prices for cabs." There were more unusual shortages too, like a run on rubber boots. On Wall Street, stockbrokers also raided stores for fresh linen shirts because theirs were soaked with snow.

3) People built giant bonfires to melt the snow

Bonfires during the blizzard.

A shoveler makes a bonfire during the 1888 blizzard. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

These days there are all sorts of rules on how you can and can't remove snow, but that wasn't the case in 1888. That's why one shopkeeper decided to use bonfires. The Sun describes the scene:

An original genius on Vesey street conceived the plan of building a fire on the big drifts before his store, and all over the lower part of the city his example was quickly followed.

Bonfires were a giant, smelly trend. According to the Sun:

The air was full of brown smoke and the appetizing odor of bonfires. This method was unique and interesting.

People dug trenches to direct the water to gutters, and holes in the snowdrifts were repeatedly packed with new wood, leaving dark brown snow behind. The reviews were positive, overall, but it's still nice not to have to worry about scattered bonfires today.

4) Because of giant snowdrifts, conductors lived in streetcars

Giant snow drifts during the 1888 blizzard.

Giant snowdrifts during the 1888 blizzard. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

The Sun said snow shovelers found a lot of interesting things in the snow, from a fresh pair of pants to a box full of bonbons, but those weren't the most unusual things stuck in the drifts. Conductors were in the snow, too.

The Third Avenue streetcars were abandoned in snowdrifts, and conductors had no choice but to live inside them. They waited out the blizzard (earning pay in the meantime), answered patrons' questions about when the cars would run again, and chased pranksters off the tracks. Though today's MTA doesn't have any explicitly stated policy on conductors living in cars, it's safe to say you don't have to worry about it.

Of course, the conductors weren't the only ones stuck in the snow. Many of the girls working at Macy's had no choice but to stay the night in the famous department store.

5) Nobody knew what a blizzard was

Of course, in 1888 it wasn't just practically difficult to get through a blizzard. It was a lot harder to understand exactly what a blizzard was.

The January 27, 1888, edition of the Evening World, published a couple of months before the great blizzard, dedicated an entire story to Martin Maginnis. The reason? He had been to the Great Plains and Montana and, as the headline proclaimed, "He Knows What A Blizzard Is."

Maginnis could "talk with the air of an expert to New Yorkers who appeal for information about the blizzard, the chinook and the other meteorological marvels of the wonderful Rocky Mountain Region."

The Montanan held forth on the blizzard and gave some handy advice ("I have never heard of ice coating over human faces in a blizzard").

You may still have to worry about a blizzard today, but at least you don't have to track down Martin Maginnis to find out what one is.

6) Today the news comes to you. In 1888 it required a reporter on a sleigh.

During the 1888 blizzard, more than 1500 Western Union poles went down, and it was even more difficult to get a copy of the newspaper. Coney Island was almost impossible to reach, so it was extremely difficult for copies of the Sun to make it that far. That's why the paper sent a reporter to deliver a single copy (with the help of a sleighman named John J. Johnson and a strong mare named Kitty).

When the reporter arrived at Coney Island, the entire island was waiting for him, including "the people, who crowded around the reporter and begged for news." He gave his copy of the Sun to a hotel keeper, who then read the paper aloud in his barroom.

Blizzards may always be tough. But at least now you can click a few links while you wait them out.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.