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City Water, City Life

By Frank Trentmann | Posted 16th August 2013, 9:16
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Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago
Carl Smith
University of Chicago Press  360pp  £22.50

H2O: few symbols are more meaningful in nature or culture. Water is life. Civilisations have arisen along riverbanks and fallen in droughts. In our own anxious age of climate change some predict water will be the ‘blue gold’ of the future. At the same time water has brought celebration, magic and pleasure, spurting from marble fountains and splashing in spas and hot tubs.

In the industrial world the 19th century was a key moment in people’s changing relationship with water. Wells and water-carriers gave way to new urban networks of piped supply. Instead of lifting buckets, city dwellers now only needed to turn the tap. Making do with a few gallons a day at the start of the century, urban Americans each consumed hundreds by its end.

It is this extraordinary transformation that is the focus of Carl Smith’s new book, which follows the arrival of the first waterworks in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago from the 1790s to the 1860s.

Today we take piped supply for granted, but at the time these were enormous, risky undertakings. Philadelphia had sunk more than half a million dollars into its Centre Square works by 1811 but only managed to attract 2,127 paying customers – roughly one in 50 inhabitants.

So what made engineers, city officials and citizens press ahead and literally dig around the financial and political obstacles in their path? One motivation was simply fear. In 1793 yellow fever had wiped out 10 per cent of Philadelphia’s population. Equally powerful was a particular mindset that came to see urban networks and piped water as symbols of progress and community. The city, Smith writes, was more than a material infrastructure: it shared an ‘infrastructure of ideas’. Water was a sign of citizenship, a public good that simultaneously improved the city and the well being of the people who lived in it. It would unite rich and poor. God had made the world with plentiful water for a reason. For the Congregationalist minister Nehmiah Adams the Boston waterworks were ‘one great monument of divine goodness and of human energy.’

Pipes and fountains showed the world what a city was made of and ensured it left its mark in the annals of history. Bostonians celebrated the powerful jet of Frog Pound fountain: its spray was ‘as beautiful a rainbow as was ever seen in the heavens.’

To speak of an intellectual infrastructure might be a little too strong, though. It downplays the clash of opinions that the new networks galvanised at the time. Smith is right to note that by 1900 waterworks run and owned by cities were the norm. But in earlier periods private monopolies were serious rivals. The focus on ‘public-spirited’ Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago thus gives us only a partial view. It would have been helpful to hear more about San Francisco and other places where water stayed in private hands. The ‘success’ of these giant works, too, was qualified by new problems. Conflicts over wasteful behaviour were endemic. In many cities even the engineers had to carry buckets to their bathrooms on the first floor because pressure was so low.

Smith’s focus is on ideas rather than on the material culture of everyday life. The mindset of civic leaders and engineers is beautifully recreated, but some readers may have wanted a more intimate sense of what happened inside the home, the taps and tubs, cooking and cleaning. What this elegantly written history does accomplish is to take the reader into the liquid revolution of modern life.

Frank Trentmann is Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London.


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