Home » This Comparison Between EV Costs And Horse-And-Carriage Costs From 1900 Is Fascinating

This Comparison Between EV Costs And Horse-And-Carriage Costs From 1900 Is Fascinating

Ev Horse Top

It’s not unreasonable to guess that you may have a friend with an electric car who is very, very into their electric car, and likes to seize your upper arm with a distractingly firm grip as they lock eyes with you and extoll the virtues of their electron-powered machine. It’s possible that you yourself are such a friend, and if you are then, hey, easy there, you’re hurting my arm. I just want to take a moment to let you know that EV diehards like this have been around a long, long, time, and to demonstrate this I’d like to share with you some pro-EV talk from over 120 years ago.

In this case, though, instead of comparing EVs to combustion cars, the comparison is more exciting, because it’s between EVs and horses, which I suppose might be considered as running on combustion, depending on how you feel like classifying digestion and metabolism.

The evaluation is from a book titled The Electric Automobile, by C.E. Woods, and was published in 1900, so if you end up traveling back in time, this should help you decide which is the better use of your transportation money, a horse or an EV. (I found it online at this site, and it’s a stellar resource if you’re into this stuff.)

Electricautomobile Cover

There are a lot of interesting things in this book, not the least of which seems to be how little it appears to be concerned with internal-combustion vehicles. Steam-powered vehicles are mentioned in a section going over the history of the automobile, but hardly any mention is given to gasoline cars, which may be why the main head-to-head comparison is between electric vehicles and horses. I’m not clear if this was a general sentiment at the time in 1900 (I don’t think so; most sources portray a sort of three-way race between steam, electricity, and gasoline as motive sources for automobiles of this era) or if C.E. there just was only focused on his beloved electric cars.

Another interesting detail I don’t think I’d really encountered before is the idea that people of the era were dissatisfied with the look of turn-of-the-century cars, as Woods describes on page 31:

The unsightly appearance of automobiles has been commented upon in this country a great deal. The trouble has usually been that engineers, electricians and mechanicians have been the original authors of the auto-mobile, and their minds have been so concentrated upon the development and perfection of the mechanical and electrical parts that they have entirely ignored the artistic side of it. This was undoubtedly brought about by the indifference and skepticism, as well as opposition, offered the advancement of the motor vehicle from legitimate carriage manufacturers them-selves, to whom such men refrained from going for advice.

Somehow, even after reading a lot of material from this early era, this may be the first time I’ve encountered the idea that people found these early cars unattractive! I mean, he’s not wrong, there wasn’t that much effort put into styling in this era, but I didn’t realize that this was an issue for these early adopters. It shouldn’t be surprising, though; design has always been a huge factor in how people react to almost anything new.

Okay, so let’s see how an EV from 1900 compares, cost-wise, to some big sweaty horse; the car being used for a comparison here is an electric Stanhope that the author doesn’t specify the make of, but I think it could be an 1899 Woods Electric:

Ev Stanhope

Hey, wait a minute! A Woods Electric? The author is C.E. Woods? Lemme check something out here – I knew it. The Woods Motor Vehicle Company was founded by Clinton Egdar Woods. No wonder the dude doesn’t mention gasoline cars! Huh.

Woods has lots of interesting predictions about EVs here, the most amusing of which, of course, are the ones that proved to be wrong. Like this one, about battery range:

Manufacturers of electric automobiles are often asked the question: “Will not a battery sometime be made to run a vehicle one hundred or more miles on one charge?” While this may be possible, the writer hardly thinks it will ever be probable, and his experience with the public is that it is wholly unnecessary, speaking generally and from a practical point of view. Improvements now being made in batteries, in the attempt to make them stand more rapid charges and discharges are much more important than one which will give them a larger mile-age capacity.

So, not only does Woods not think a battery-powered automobile will be able to get over 100 miles per charge, he doesn’t think you even need that much, anyway. Mazda must have read this when they introduced the Mazda MX-30. And, in Woods’ defense, for decades this was largely true, EVs generally had less than 100 miles of range, especially in the Crap Era of EVs, which lasted well into the 1980s. I talk about the Crap Era of EVs here, if you’re curious:

Woods also has some interesting thoughts on the speed of EVs, too:

Surely twelve to sixteen miles an hour is fast enough when we consider that in city work it is practically double the speed and one-half the time made by the horse.

On the first introduction of motor vehicles, a great deal of stress was laid on speed, articles appearing in many papers advocating extremely high speeds, and in some of the tests and races given in this country, nearly fifty per cent of the value of an automobile as a prize winner was placed in its speed. The absurdity of this, however, is already proven. Almost any speed desired can be obtained from an electric automobile. It is simply a question of power application and gearing, and those who wish to ride at breakneck speed should only be allowed to do so in places provided for the use of high-speed and racing machines, as roadways or racing tracks set aside for their exclusive use, which will no doubt in time come in the same way that they have been provided for horses.

So, he’s sort of hit-and-miss here: he thinks 12-16 mph should be enough for anyone which, um, it’s not, but he also predicts the coming of racetracks for cars. Remember that in 1900, “motorsport” was basically “two bored rich guys in horseless carriages seeing which one went faster in a straight line.” But racing made quick progress from there, with the Indy Motor Speedway opening just nine years later.

Okay, back to the EV vs Horse cost comparison: as far as the horse goes, it’s not really mentioned. I assume some kind of domestically-built one-horsepower horse, with options like a mane and tail and eyeballs installed from the horse factory, also known as a “horse uterus.” The cost comparo is broken into two parts: initial cost and recurring costs, taken annually. First, let’s look at the initial costs:



Here, the horse wins, by a pretty significant amount. Cars in 1900 were still very expensive; even the Woods Electric Stanhope there, a fairly minimal car in many ways, costs about $71,000 in today’s money. A horse and similar carriage are just a bit over half that cost. Things do change pretty drastically when it comes to maintenance and upkeep and other recurring costs, as Woods breaks down here:


So the electric Stanhope’s annual costs were, in 2023 dollars, about $25,000 – a lot of cash! (Editor’s note: It’s about the cost of maintaining a 1980s BMW 7 Series today. Ask me how I know this. -PG)  But, a horse is even worse, requiring stabling, feeding, veterinary care, shoeing, and multiple horses would be needed to equal the amount of driving one could get from the EV.

In this regard, Woods figures 80 miles per day is possible with an EV, but each horse could only manage 20, so four horses would be needed. This all comes to, again in modern money, $38,108 per year! Damn! Who knew horses were so expensive, I mean, other than almost anyone who has thought about it for a moment?

Based on these numbers, I expect that an electric car would overcome its initial higher cost after about three years of ownership and use. As far as how Woods felt about the initial costs of EVs dropping over time, Woods has some thoughts:

Another question which is asked nearly every day is: “Will not the cost of electric automobiles be greatly reduced in a few years, in the same degree that bicycles, sewing machines, and other mechanical devices in that line have been subject to?” The reply is invariably: “No!” While the cost may be reduced a slight percentage from what it is now, it should be borne in mind that the art of carriage building is an old art.

Now, at first it’s easy to laugh at Woods with his emphatic “No!” for EVs getting cheaper, but while the average price isn’t about $70,000, modern EVs are still not exactly cheap. In fact, they’re alarmingly close, with the average price of an EV in 2022 being about $65,000! That’s still like twice the cost of a horse and carriage back then. Having said that, the cost of new goods and new technologies do get cheaper over time, generally. And a modern will EVs do offer a hell of a lot more of, well, everything, than the spindly, minimal electric automobiles of 1900 could provide.

In a way, we could compare an electric car with similar specs to a 1900-era EV, which would be something like my $1,200 Chinese-build Changli EV. In that sense, prices have dropped dramatically. But, the use cases and target market of a Woods Electric in 1900 is much closer to, say, that of a Tesla Model S than some absurd electric crapbox like the Changli, so I think we can say Woods was pretty much on the money after all.

I think the takeaway here is if you wake up in 1900, don’t waste your money on a horse. Oh, and get the hell out of Galveston, Texas, if you end up there.

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48 Responses

  1. Autopilot, nav, and vice recog system much better than anything today. Whistle, and horsey advances to the next house for milk delivery, whistle twice and he/she heads home, automatic collision avoidance highly effective. Answers only to owner, kicks thiefs (did they really do that?) Advanced models, like Mr. Ed were natural language processors.

  2. I notice that Mr. Woods avoided the topic of emissions.

    Anyone who has traveled through an area with a lot of Amish will recognize the need to avoid horse exhaust.

      1. It’s why “Brownstones” in New York had their first floor up a flight..to keep it above the crap. The help lived in the ground level spaces.
        Also..a friend took a hotel job in Mackinac Island MI one summer. She started in Spring and it was just lovely. By July she could hardly stand the stench.

      2. It was a huge problem. Every square inch of every street and road was covered in horse shit, every day, all the time. IT’s not surprising that we adopted to cars and trucks so quickly.

  3. What Mr. Woods neglects to mention, and what in my opinion is one of the main reasons electric cars mostly vanished by the early 20th century, is that the lead acid batteries had a limited lifetime, and were expensive to replace.

    Also, tire wear would probably have been a factor (at least in larger models), especially if you wanted the comfort and luxury of modern “pneumatics”.

    PS: the book is also available at archive.org, for those who are interested:

    1. The ubiquitous lack of paved roads in that era made rolling resistance an overwhelming factor in determining range, which made the limitations of lead acid batteries all the more constraining.

      The 1904 Baker Torpedo Kid had a decently aerodynamic body and could reach 100 mph. On a modern paved road, I’d hazard an educated guess that it would have gotten more than 100 miles on a charge at the 15 mph or so speeds cars typically travelled at in those days.

      By the time the Edison NiFe battery was proven viable, gasoline powered automobiles had already taken off, largely due to the invention of the radiator and the electric starter. But the NiFe battery offered double the range of lead acid. If there was such a thing as a time machine and I had access to it, I bet I could have made an electric car with this battery that could have stayed competitive.

      By 1921, the Rumpler Tropfenwagen had achieved aerodynamic drag figures comparable to the average 2023 new car sold today, which if it had the Baker Electric’s NiFe pack and a primitive series DC motor with a contactor controller, possibly could have gotten well over 200 miles range at the 15-20 mph or so speeds cars typically drove in that era, and with the right attention to the design, such aerodynamics would have allowed even a 48V system to top out at 100 mph, keeping it competitive with the race cars of the day on very little horsepower. Then there’s the possibility of going the microcar route, based on Charles Mochet’s recumbent pedalcars of the 1930s. Think of what could have been…

  4. “it’s between EVs and horses, which I suppose might be considered as running on combustion, depending on how you feel like classifying digestion and metabolism.”

    Friendly neighborhood chemist here: whether you run a vehicle on petroleum products through internal combustion, electricity from a battery or fuel cell, or with a biological being, all energy is being produced via reduction/oxidation processes (commonly called red-ox, but not referring to Babe’s ruddy cousin). The efficiency of the processes and the manner in which the energy is converted into mechanical energy differs, but the fundamental process is basically the same: something gives up electrons and something else takes them.

    Also, “Weird old book finder”, where have you been all my life? Thanks for that link, Jason. I predict that I will spend many hours perusing that site. I love weird old books and collect them – things like 200 year old chemistry texts and other old science books.

    1. Old medical books too. It’s amazing both what they knew and what they had wrong or were totally ignorant. Disease caused by invisible critters – imagine!

  5. One of these options is statistically much less likely to bite your fingers off, cave your head in, then tap dance on you as you slowly die.

    I’d rather walk than use a horse for transport.

    Donkeys are pretty okay and are much much smarter than horses.

    1. “One of these options is statistically much less likely to bite your fingers off, cave your head in, then tap dance on you as you slowly die.”

      Buddy, you haven’t met my wife! (͡o‿O͡)

  6. Ok, someone else said this, but it’s worth repeating: had no idea when I got up this morning that I would be reading about depreciating horses (as opposed to self-deprecating). Nor that someone here would have written a PhD thesis that included estimates of horse poop deposited each year in NYC.

    This prompted me to try again to give this site my money. The first time it elicited a fraud alert & didn’t go through. Having talked to my bank this week, it worked this time:yay!

    Huh. Feels different being vested, as it were. Off to read Tales From the Slack!

  7. Another thing, you have to feed and water your horses, every day, even when doing no work.
    An electric will just sit there, slowly discarging, around 10% per month.
    Don’t water the horse for a few days, and you need a brand new horse.

    1. On the other hand, if you’ve got 2 horses (of the appropriate models), you’ve got a horse factory. Sure it requires upkeep, but cars don’t regenerate more cars. In a few years, you’ve got a new & used horse lot, and maybe even can offer financing.

  8. There is also the factor that if your mode of transportation is a horse, that it can father or mother the next generation of your transportation, so there is that factor.

        1. It is possible for a horse to recover from a broken leg, but it takes time and a lot of vet’s bills. So it’s not unusual for an injured horse to be put down, especially if it’s old.

  9. I’d call horseshit on CE Woods, if he hadn’t already denigrated equines enough with his calumny. $250 to buy a horse, when the U.S. average in 1900 was $44 per head? (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175006938032&view=1up&seq=661). And that carriage would probably have lasted for multiple generations (of people) with mild maintenance

    Average urban rents in the US in 1900 were well under $10/month, and even for middle class suburban families rarely reached $15 month. No one west of Central Park or north 72nd was paying $25/mo. to stable Libby.

    Outside of denser neighborhoods (which presumably had omnibuses/trolleys/trains), anyone with 1/4+ acre lot probably had a lean-to/shed/carriage house for Pally and a shay at least. A horse without adequate grazing will need 2.5% of body weight in daily hay (say 30#): these days a ton of alfalfa will set you back ~$200, grass hay ~$130, at a ton every five weeks (ignoring mold and wastage) that’s $1300-$2000/yr in today’s currency. Using the 35% inflation factor in the article, that comes out to $3-$5/month in 1900 to feed Dash.

    And two men to care for a horse? Only for the best studs, and the Budweiser prima donnas.

    5 year working lifespan might be about right on average, considering human misbehavior and neglect, and tehn as now, a lot of auctioned horses probably went to slaughter.

  10. Another comparison, and one which drove the popularity of not only electric but also petroleum powered vehicles, was the massive amount of poop produced by horses, especially in large cities like New York and Chicago. In New York City alone, an estimated 70,000 metric tons of horse poop had to be hauled away each year to prevent the streets being clogged by turds. (Source: my Ph.D. thesis about remote measurement of automotive emissions by means of long-path infrared and UV/visible spectroscopy.) Automotive emissions, by comparison, were invisible and seemingly harmless and infinitely better than trodding through piles of rotting poop.

    With your predilection for all things scatological, I’m surprised you didn’t make a major point of this, Torch.

    1. During a course on environmental science the prof did a quick and dirty calculation of how much poop there would be on the streets if we still used horses and in the same amount as we now use cars. I think it was something of a foot deep on highways.

    2. “In New York City alone, an estimated 70,000 metric tons of horse poop had to be hauled away each year to prevent the streets being clogged by turds.”

      All dumped in New Jersey.
      That explains a lot.

    1. Oooh, I just went looking. The US Treasury has answered this question more than once. And there are a number of factors, including use for racing and use for breeding. Overall, they came up with 6.4 years for non-breeding and 15.1 for breeding horses. 20.5, when accounting for stallions with breeding value that appreciated over time. But they ended up with a 7 year MACRS recovery class for horses overall.

      The American Horse Council asked them to remove the outliers of successful racehorses, which would have lowered this. So he may have been pretty close to the useful economic life of working horses.

      1. Prior to that decision, horses fell into 5 different asset classes and each depreciated differently. And I see some of those had a 3 year depreciation. I don’t see any data for 1900, so I can’t say for sure that he was right.

      2. Interesting, I always thought horses were pretty useful throughout their lives, which is obviously much longer than 5 years. But of course, tax tricks are different than real life sometimes, as we all know.

        Genuinely something I learned today that I did not expect to ever know.

        1. Useful as riding steeds and useful as pulling implements are vastly different.

          It has been a while, but my military marksmanship course in college had an entire section in the textbook regarding mobilization of weaponry, and it addressed how much of our arms race through WW1 was limited by horses. We could not breed and train horses fast enough to replace them when pulling heavy loads, where useful service life was around a year.

          That wasn’t related to war casualties, horses are just not able to recover from pulling hard day in and day out, and the army couldn’t justify spare teams like you’ll find on farms to supply rest days when it was cheaper to “surplus” the horses and replace them.

          And that surplus process, combined with a lack of value due to rising car usage, led to canned dog food, for today’s morbid fun fact.

        2. The utterly crude state of veterinary care meant horses frequently died of diseases we can easily treat today. Life was nasty, brutish and short for horses.

    2. Horses live 25-30 years, they are considered old in the 15-20 range. so assuming a 1 or eve two year Foal time, I would say the amortization would be about 12 years conservatively speaking,

    3. Many goods are assumed to have a five-year depreciation cycle. This is part of the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) in use today.

      The IRS, for example, classifies cars and trucks as depreciating over five years.

      They also mention “Breeding cattle and dairy cattle” as being 5-year assets.

      I think it’s possible that horses – when they were primarily farm implements – may have been categorized the same way. That’s just speculation, though.

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