World Sweeper Logo

Sweeping Through History in Berkeley

antique sweeper

From hand brooms and horses to high tech, from mud to macadam to asphalt, the one constant is change.

by L.A. Wood

The invention of gutters and curbs was hailed as a fundamental improvement.

The following is a historical overview of the rise of street sweeping in Berkeley, CA. Probably this story is much like that of 'Everytown, USA.' As the population of an area increased, the need was seen for more and better roads. At first streets were surfaced with "dust in the summer and mud in the winter," old-timers attest. Cleaning was downright hopeless. With the change to a hard, permanent-type surface, though, cleaning became both desirable and feasible. Here's how things progressed...

By 1916, about half a dozen sweepers were already on the job in the city of Berkeley. Although only a small portion of the city was then being covered, city employees went around to the different areas of town and cleaned the streets by broom. Five teams of horses were utilized to go and pick up the street sweepings. Residents of the various neighborhoods were asked to help out with this newfangled activity by putting trash from the nearby area at the road edge.

According to the literature of the time, quite a few complaints developed because people would not do it on the right day, put it in the right place, etc. These and any other complaints were the yardstick by which the city's cleanliness was measured. In this respect at least, there is some amount of similarity to the way in which cleaning effectiveness is judged even today!

The year 1916 also marked the first change to mechanization. The city took the unprecedented step of buying itself a two and a half ton truck and, among its other duties, it became the pickup vehicle for street sweepings. Use of this truck may well have been counter to a City Ordinance that had been passed at that time, however. According to the 1916 Public Works Report, an ordinance was enacted to try and slow the breakup of the road surfaces by limiting loads upon city streets to 600 pounds per inch width of tire. The ordinance also ordained an upper speed limit of 12 miles per hour!

Because of Berkeley's many hills, this new truck represented a vast improvement in getting debris off some of the otherwise hard-to-reach areas. That one truck slowly but steadily took over the task of the five teams of horses.

In 1923, change struck again when the city maintenance managers decided that they would divide the city up into 'street zones.' They reasoned that by doing so they would be able to keep the roadways better cleaned. At this time enough of a commerce center had sprung up downtown that there was a real desire to keep the area neat and clean. A plan was put into place which called for sweeping the center core a whopping three times a day, all by hand, of course. It was decided at the same time that some of the outlying areas would be swept every other month, or about six times a year.

At that time the concept of hand sweeping was quite understandable, since everything was either hand swept or not swept at all. Plus, a lot of what was done in the '20s was linked to the county Work Fair type of programs, which were seen as good ways to create employment. To keep up with the debris stream, the city had to expand so that it had three debris-pickup trucks in operation instead of just the one.

Another big reason for the increase in trucks needed for the public works department was that the composition of the streets themselves started changing. Macadam (layers of compacted small stones, usually bound with tar - named after its inventor, McAdam) had been the number one material used at the turn of the century, but it broke down quickly when rubber tires were run over it. With the advent of automobile traffic, a large number of extra maintenance duties were created for the city.

In 1924, the city fathers responded by starting the changeover to better road-building materials: asphalt and concrete. This transition took a number of years, so for a while the city had a variety of street types. Some were asphalt and concrete, some were macadam and some remained undeveloped all together. Public works' programs again provided much of the workforce for what was the very labor-intensive process of street construction and maintenance.

Also associated with street cleaning in the '20s and '30s was the concept of fire-burning the edges of the roads. The street cleaning division owned a machine that was called a 'side road burner.' It was quite necessary because, at the time, no one had yet thought of the concept of gutters. Burning away the transition where the vegetation met the road surface was seen as the best way to keep the road itself from becoming overgrown with weeds.

The invention of gutters and curbs represented a fundamental shift in the way streets were constructed. This new technique was hailed as a way to make roads last longer, while at the same time making roadway cleaning easier and more effective. Because the debris stayed on the street better, it was still there to be swept up when the guys with brooms came along. In 1929, an article of the time announced, "Street paving is a big improvement. The most striking changes in Berkeley streets during the physical year of '28 and '29 include the improvement of paving and the paving of 4 unpaved thoroughfares." It was recognized that slowing the replacement of roadways would free more municipal time and money for keeping the streets clean.

By fiscal year 1934-35, the number of linear miles swept by the city had risen to 2,214. Between 50 and 60 people were now involved in sweeping. Cleaning zones were set up, and teams of sweepers were assigned to each of the different zones. Quality control was still measured by the number of complaints that were received in each zone, so workers hoped that everyone on their route either would not care or were not complainers. I find this to be remarkably similar to what is still done in the areas of Berkeley that are in the Opt-Out Program. In both cases a deficiency in cleaning is flagged only through complaints about debris not being picked up. There is still no structured program where assessment teams go around to see that the job is being done well in that particular area.

The number of cars was multiplying rapidly, and the use of horse-drawn wagons for transportation was dropping off just as quickly. This made it even more critical to change the road surfaces, and the city set about doing that at a fast rate. In 1938-39 alone, over 70 miles of the town's streets were replaced by the new surfacing materials, complete with curblines. At the time, California was apparently the number one producer of this new type of road material. Also, a change away from bonding the surfacing materials with a water-based process to one that was oil-based was credited with having quite an impact on wearability of road surface and its ease of cleaning.

An excerpt from Berkeley's 1938-39 Annual Report reads, "It will be observed that the total linear miles cleaned has increased over the last year and the cost per linear mile has decreased. This economy may be attributed largely to the improved road conditions and street gutters." It puts the cost of cleaning per linear mile in 1938 at $10.73, and it was easy to see that there was excitement that a direct relationship could be observed between this cost-savings and the new technologies.

By the time the Second World War came along, people had an expectation that clean streets were an inherent right. It was considered indispensable, in the same category as garbage collection. Then in 1944 sweeping finally went 'high-tech' when the city of Berkeley purchased its first mechanized sweeper. This began the decline of sweeping by hand (although some downtown commercial areas of Berkeley are still hand-swept).

The next real change didn't take place until 1960, when the concept of street cleaning via water flushing was introduced. At the time it was thought to be a fine idea to just wash street litter into the storm drains and sort it out later. This is now an environmental issue for Berkeley, as it is for the rest of Alameda county and much of the rest of the United States. For some years, however, Berkeley used flushing as the primary method for cleaning the hilly areas that were difficult to clean with sweepers.

A program of sweeping has kind of grown up in this community, as it has in all the cities of the U.S., and has been considered an important city activity for well over 50 years. Today about 12,000 curb miles are swept, more than 5 times the area that was being cleaned in 1935.

With the increasing numbers and amounts of pollutants that are now being introduced into South Bay, and with the requirements of the Clean Water Act, my prediction is that the future will hold as many changes as the past. It would be interesting to see how an article similar to this would read 50 years from now - say in an issue of World Sweeper from the year 2045.

World Sweeper Logo

© 2005 - 2021 World Sweeper
All rights reserved.

Street Contents

Street/Power Sweeping Profiles Contents

Site Map / Table of Contents