Why are the curbs so high?

This 1902 Kearney photo shows a growing city that is no longer a frontier town. Some of the old false-front wooden buildings remain, but we also see a substantial building of brick, plus telephone wires and a brick-paved sidewalk separated from the muddy street by high curbs.

Why are street curbs often so high (sometime more than a foot tall) in old photos? And why were they lowered by the mid-twentieth century? The short answers are: (1) horse manure; and (2) automobile doors.

Curbs are an ancient idea (Pompeii had them), but they were uncommon even in large cities before the eighteenth century. Streets were muddy, filled with manure, and because they lacked storm sewers, they flowed like rivers when it rained. High curbs helped keep the mess off the sidewalks. But as automobiles became more common, high curbs scraped hubcaps and body trim, and prevented passengers from opening their doors.

Incidentally, look closer at the women in the detail below. Imagine climbing up into that contraption in a long skirt, around those big wheels. That took some skill—and having a high curb probably made the climb easier.

(Photo: History Nebraska RG2608-0-2625)

–by David L. Bristow, Editor

(posted 2/15/2023)

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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