The Nature of Water: Reform and the Antebellum Crusade for Municipal Water in Boston

ON A PERFECT fall day in October 1848, thousands of people from all over New England gathered in Boston to celebrate the completion of the city’s first municipal water system and the arrival of a pure supply of water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning. Crowds lined the narrow streets for over two hours and watched a massive parade wind its way through a sea of decorations that proclaimed the coming of water. Spanning Tremont Street was a specially constructed arch inscribed with William Shakespeare’s words, “There will be a world of water shed”; the Reverend Francis Parkman’s church displayed a flag declaring “Pure Water the Gift of Heaven”; and dignitaries spoke from a stand festooned with biblical passages, one of which drew on Genesis to assure the crowd that “The water is ours.” This last quotation captured one of the principal reasons that so many people had turned out to celebrate: The new system was publicly owned.[1]

The crowd celebrated not just the fact of public ownership, however, but the victory of a set of complex and competing ideas about nature that adhered to public water. The city’s working classes, which drew water from publicly available if often polluted wells, experienced water as a common resource to which all citizens had a right. A public system, they hoped, would operate like a commons and charge little or nothing for water. Urban reformers also supported a municipal system, although they viewed water differently. Provoked by rising levels of social disorder and inspired by a deep belief in nature as a force for good, reformers claimed that an abundant and inexpensive supply of water would transform the health and morality of the city’s working classes. In contrast, a number of wealthy Bostonians had fought fiercely against public water. They saw pure water as a commodity that should remain available only to those who could afford the purchase price, and they feared that insulating it from market forces would threaten the economic system. But the ideas of this last group had not prevailed. Reformers, with their faith in environmental salvation, and the city’s workers, with their vision of water as a commons, had lobbied successfully for a municipal system that would distribute water broadly and cheaply. This celebration belonged to them.[2]

Figure 1. Boston Water Celebration.
Uniformed members of a temperance society march in the water parade and carry a standard bearing the image of a fountain. The arch displays a quote from Shakespeare: “There will be a world of water shed.”

Lithograph, 1848. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

Figure 2. View of the Celebration on Boston Common.
As many as one hundred thousand people gathered on Boston Common to celebrate what Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber called the “Advent Day of Water.”

Lithograph, 1849. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

The range of attitudes toward water that Bostonians articulated, and the passion with which they debated them, suggests that urbanization played a more complex role in shaping ideas of nature than we often believe. Scholars have shown how the growth of cities in the nineteenth century focused attention on non-urban nature and encouraged the construction of new meanings for wilderness and the countryside.[3] But city building also forced urbanites to reconsider their physical and cultural relationships with the urban nature they encountered every day. Americans debated the nature of “nature” as they transformed country lakes into water supplies, pastures into parks, and tidal flats into new land, just as they did when they built campgrounds, country retreats, and scenic drives outside of cities. In fact, Bostonians discussed the meaning of their water supply in the same years that Henry David Thoreau pondered the meaning of nearby Walden Pond. Only by considering the ideas of those who turned the natural environment into the built environment can we fully understand the evolution of attitudes toward nature.

Boston’s reformers were particularly adept at employing representational nature to shape the uses of physical nature in the city. Like urban reformers across antebellum America, they paid close attention to environmental factors and gave nature a prominent place in their theories. Although historians have explored some of the concerns with health and morality that encouraged reformers to support the construction of water systems, other reform ideas about water remain understudied. Temperance advocates in Boston, for example, hoping that a municipal supply of water would diminish alcohol consumption, transformed water into a metaphor for moral purity, a carrier of nature’s medicinal benefits, and a symbol of their cause. Other supporters of municipal water converted ornamental fountains from embellishments to necessities by arguing that elaborate sprays of water could bring the restorative power of nature directly into cities to sooth urban passions. Still others echoed working-class views of water as a commons, claiming that the very nature of water—its essential role in sustaining life—demanded that society dispense it outside of market forces. Hoping to convert water into a powerful engine of social change, Boston’s reformers applied new layers of meaning to the most familiar of natural resources. Their visions for water heavily influenced the choice of a public over a private water system.[4]

Figure 3. Cochituate Grand Quick Step, Composed for the Water Celebration.
This pastoral image of the fountain on Boston Common captures the gentle and refined behavior that reformers hoped such fountains would encourage.

1848. Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum.

The Water Problem

IN THE EARLY nineteenth century, many Bostonians—especially poorer residents of the city—experienced their domestic supply of water as a common resource. Some used the pump in Dock Square, one of the few maintained by the city, while most others relied on private wells that had assumed a public character over time. The Waltham Company, for example, allowed unlimited access to its water, and some wealthy residents left their wells unlocked when leaving the city for the summer.[5] Although other well owners guarded their water supplies more closely, an entire neighborhood might patronize a single well and pay nothing for its use. Whether open to the public or not, most of the wells in the city supplied only hard water, which contained minerals that made it less effective for washing. Better-off property owners obtained soft water by collecting roof runoff in private cisterns, or by purchasing it from entrepreneurs who collected it from country lakes and sold it door-to-door by the bucket. Working-class Bostonians, however, depended largely on the semi-public wells that they used in common.[6]

Antebellum urbanites who had enough money—and were fortunate to live in the right area of a city—sometimes had the additional option of purchasing water from a private corporation. Since the late eighteenth century, states had chartered companies in cities from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Charleston, South Carolina, to meet part of the growing demand for water. These companies developed water into a saleable commodity and then dispensed it for a price. The Boston Aqueduct Corporation had supplied a small part of Boston since 1798. The company drew water from Jamaica Pond in neighboring Roxbury and transported it through pipes to better-off neighborhoods in the southern part of the city. Precedents for private corporations constructing infrastructure of public value existed in the recent and widespread development of canals and turnpikes. And the sale of water to those who could afford to buy it reinforced the popular belief that city residents should get only the services for which they paid.[7]

Private water companies, however, had limitations. Always conscious of the bottom line, they avoided expensive public commitments and resented requirements that forced them to repair streets after laying pipes and provide water free of charge for fighting fires. Water companies also had well-deserved reputations for unreliability. Customers of the Boston Aqueduct Corporation frequently complained that the supply of water was inadequate and even nonexistent for extended periods, and similar distribution problems remained common wherever private water companies plied their trade. The water business nevertheless could be quite profitable: After upgrading its infrastructure, the Boston Aqueduct Corporation consistently paid its stockholders an annual dividend of ten percent.[8]

In time, Boston’s patchwork of wells, cisterns, and a single private water company proved inadequate. Like the residents of New York City and other rapidly urbanizing areas, Bostonians experienced increasing problems with the quantity and quality of their water supply. In April 1825, a large fire consumed fifty-three houses and stores before firefighters brought it under control. Forced by a lack of well water to use seawater, firefighters dragged their engines one thousand feet to the nearest dock and then back again, losing half the water in the process. Later that same year, the city’s consulting physician, Dr. John Warren, questioned the quality of the city’s water and claimed that the health of its residents required a new supply. He had noticed many cases in which the substitution of pure water for well water relieved illnesses, and he deduced that the city’s well water was causing the ailments. Mayor Josiah Quincy responded to both crises by lobbying the city council to find and develop a more plentiful and pure source of water. But he encountered stiff resistance from those who feared the cost of a municipal system and reluctantly concluded that such plans would have to wait until the desire for water outweighed the fear of increasing the city debt.[9]

In 1834, faced with growing public dissatisfaction with the quality of the groundwater, the council commissioned a study of the city’s wells. The survey, based on interviews rather than chemical analysis, showed that 30 percent of the city’s 2,767 wells produced water that nearby residents considered undrinkable. It was common knowledge that cistern water also had deteriorated, especially since the introduction of coal as a household fuel. Roofs collected coal ash, as well as leaves from nearby trees and dust from the streets, and rain washed the mixture directly into cisterns. If sufficiently contaminated, cistern water had a smoky taste and discolored cloths washed in it.[10]

Despite the accumulating evidence of deterioration, the actual extent of the water problem was hard to gauge. Some Bostonians, from a cross-section of neighborhoods, insisted that their well or cistern water was fine and that they were unaware of any general want of water in the city. Josiah Knapp, an eighty-six-year-old resident of the South End, defended the city’s well water by claiming that he had “lived as long as any body” after a lifetime of drinking it. Thomas Cushing, who lived near the State House, admitted that the rainwater he collected in his cistern tasted like soot, but insisted that his family had grown used to it. Reasonable people could disagree about how bad water needed to be before it became unusable.[11]

It was more difficult to deny the water problem in the poorest neighborhoods. Landlords made no provisions for access to water, and the few wells in working-class areas tended to give water of poor quality. People nevertheless surrounded them each day and readily consumed their water. Desperate immigrants in the Broad Street neighborhood near the city’s wharves sometimes paid as much as six dollars to gain access to a private well for the year, or smaller amounts if they simply wanted to fill a pail.[12] When one property owner decided to remove the cistern in his home and offered its remaining water without charge, poor women and children, carrying containers of all shapes and sizes, overwhelmed his basement in an effort to collect every drop.[13] The quantity and quality of water available to a family reflected its position on the social and economic ladder.

Chartering private companies remained the most common solution to water problems in urban America far into the nineteenth century. Proponents believed that private companies could develop a water supply much more cheaply than municipalities because profit-driven entities always search for the most inexpensive solution. They also claimed that cities empowering several companies rather than just one would enjoy more water, and insisted that competition among the companies would reduce the cost to the consumer. Advocates often expressed admiration for London, which drew its water from eight different companies.[14]

Proponents of private water systems warned that public ownership, on the other hand, would lead only to disaster. A city could not undertake such a large-scale project without a special legislative act that would enhance the city’s powers with unpredictable and perhaps dangerous results. Private water advocates also worried that the debt assumed by a city to complete the works would ruin the rich, who would have to shoulder an unjust tax burden for water supplied to the poor.[15]

Many Bostonians, however, doubted the ability of private corporations to deliver an adequate supply of reasonably priced water to the entire city, especially to working-class neighborhoods. Samuel Eliot, who pushed for municipal water during his two terms as mayor, insisted that the profit required by private companies would offset any savings. That same quest for revenue, he claimed, would encourage corporations to trade the long-term benefit of the people for short-term financial gain. Water companies never would invest more in a system than they absolutely had to, and the need for profit would effectively shut out the poor. This was, in fact, the case throughout the nation. Water companies rarely laid pipes through tenement districts since they knew that most of the landlords would be unwilling—and the tenants unable—to purchase the water. The Boston Aqueduct Corporation refused to supply streets unless enough residents contracted to take the water. As a result, many Bostonians hoped to build a successful public system like those in Philadelphia and, later, New York City. They believed that municipal control was the only way that the city’s workers would ever see a drop of water.[16]

The Reform Vision: Water and Wealth

THE WATER DEBATES in Boston were deeply rooted in the social and economic turbulence of the times. Like other American cities, Boston experienced the rapid growth and social dislocations produced by the market revolution. Bostonians also struggled to absorb a flood of immigrants. Seemingly overnight, the city found itself home to a large—and largely unwelcome—Irish population. The newcomers provided muscle for the new industrial order, but they also increased the cost of managing the poor, pushed native residents out of neighborhoods along the wharves, and increased religious tensions in a city that retained a strong Puritan identity. Riots between Catholics and Protestants were common by the late 1820s, and Bostonians found their city riddled with unprecedented levels of poverty, prostitution, drunkenness, and crime. The troubles faced by Boston and other antebellum American cities seemed to herald a new and unexpected destiny for the nation: complete social and moral breakdown.[17]

Boston became a hotbed of reform activity, and in the 1830s public water took its place beside other campaigns for social improvement. Dr. Walter Channing, a professor and dean at Harvard Medical School and an avid supporter of several reform movements, discussed water in the same context as temperance, abolition, and prison reform.[18] Like these better-remembered causes, water represented more than a solution to a narrowly defined problem. Water advocates believed that a plentiful supply of pure water could better the health and morals of the urban population, especially the working classes, and thereby transform society. Once reformers pinned such high expectations to water, they found themselves opposing privately owned systems of delivery that denied the fruits of nature to those who needed it most. They found substantial support among the working classes, which were used to cheap or free water but suffered from the deterioration of existing wells.[19]

Drawing on prevailing medical opinions and changing social attitudes toward cleanliness, many reformers expected a supply of pure water to improve the health of the community. Public health experts claimed that illness was born of filth, and they maintained that most filth clustered in the city’s streets, in the environments frequented by the poor, and on the bodies of the poor themselves. Health experts saw these as the fetid breeding grounds of the epidemics that so often plagued America’s cities. The introduction of pure water promised to be an important part of the solution: Wash away the dirt, and you wash away the potential for illness. The supposed health benefits of water appealed particularly to members of the middle and upper classes, who purchased bathtubs for their homes, frequented new commercial bathing establishments, and pursued hydropathy—the water cure—in growing numbers. Since poorer urbanites had less control over the quality and quantity of water available to them, they seemed to pose a threat to the cleaner classes. Reformers insisted that supplying pure water to the poor through a municipal system would provide substantial health benefits to all residents of the city.[20]

The most prominent advocates of public water in Boston were physicians, and in the 1840s Dr. Walter Channing emerged as their principal spokesman. Channing believed that the hardness of the city’s well water made cleaning almost impossible to accomplish, since soap would not lather with water that contained impurities. Hard water also rendered meat tougher and vegetables unpalatable, he claimed, and destroyed the health benefits of both.[21] He further warned that the contents of privy vaults and cesspools were poisoning the city’s groundwater by leaching into the soil. Other physicians echoed this concern, although Channing could speak to it from personal experience: The contents of a neighbor’s cesspool had leaked into his cellar, ruining some stored vegetables and exposing his family to potential disease. The accident also contaminated the water cistern of the cesspool’s owner, who had to purchase water from the Aqueduct Company thereafter.[22]

Doctors supported municipal water for humanitarian reasons as well. They were among the few upper-class Bostonians who routinely visited the city’s slums, where residents felt the lack of water most keenly. Dr. John Ware, commenting on one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods in the North End, confessed: “I have rarely been more moved than I have been in Ann street, during a rain, in seeing the children, with all sorts of vessels in their hands, catching the falling drops, themselves literally soaked through in the labor.”[23] Another of the city’s leading doctors, Henry Bowditch, was moved by a physical altercation among several Irish women on Broad Street over the use of a pump.[24] As Channing concluded, “No body knows and no body can learn what deprivation means, who does not see the actual workings of a system which denies to the people the use of water.”[25]

The Reform Vision: Water and Morality

URBAN REFORMERS hoped that cheap and abundant water would not only bring health to the residents of cities, but also improve morality, especially among the working classes. Rather than suggesting new uses for water, however, reformers gave fresh meanings to old ones. Cleaning with water, drinking water, and contemplating water became symbolic acts that connected individuals with the purity of nature. Specifically, reformers hoped that water would improve urban morals by promoting cleanliness, encouraging temperance, and providing access to inspirational nature in the form of public fountains. Only a municipal system would enable a broad range of urbanites to benefit from water’s uplifting power.

In the early nineteenth century, personal and environmental cleanliness became widespread markers not only of health but also of social position and moral standing. The status-conscious middle classes used personal cleanliness, a long-time indicator of gentility, to distinguish themselves from the “degraded masses” and to reinforce their claim to greater virtue. Public health experts extended the moral importance of cleanliness to the environment, which they believed had the power to shape an individual’s psychological state as much as his physical well being.[26]

Once personal and environmental filth came to indicate an absence of morality, Boston’s tenement districts seemed like cesspools of sin. Channing described the sanitary condition of the city’s poor like an American Dickens: “The dark lanes and alleys they live in are rarely cleaned,” he wrote. “They are never washed. Their wretched, dark, ill-ventilated rooms are scarce ever washed. Their persons are foul. Their clothing dirty.” Channing was convinced that such miserable environmental conditions would breed degradation as easily as disease. “Every thing about them is most wretched,” he continued, “most unfit to minister to self-respect, or to promote physical health, or moral progress. They become—are they not made—intemperate by such hard trial of virtue.”[27]

According to reformers, even those poor who wanted to raise their moral standing faced certain failure without a clean environment. Channing wrote of a personal visit to an impoverished family of eight crammed into a single room in a run-down tenement. The father of the family, who claimed to have drunk “more rum than any man in Boston,” had taken the temperance pledge four years before and intended to remain faithful to it. But the room remained a filthy and demoralizing place. Without convenient access to a well or cistern, the mother washed the floor only when a neighbor was willing to share her dirty laundry water. Channing believed that the poor living conditions forced upon the family by a lack of water impeded the father’s future moral improvement and even threatened to rob him of the gains he had made. If the man sank again into immorality, he would take his family with him.[28]

Water also could contribute to moral reform by replacing alcohol as America’s drink of preference. Many temperance advocates believed that bad water actually led drinkers to the bottle. Faced with a foul-tasting glass of water, ran the theory, even the most ardent opponent of alcohol would be tempted to turn to drink, or at the very least to offset the bad taste by adding some spirits. Anecdotal evidence supported this belief. A Boston artisan named Joseph Tilden, for example, confessed that he “used to mix spirit with water, when it was so bad I could not drink it without.”[29] Other evidence suggested that an abundant supply of pure water could alter such behavior. Walter Channing knew a resident of Philadelphia whose drinking habits changed dramatically after the construction of the city’s Fairmount Water Works. “Before this supply of pure water,” explained Channing’s friend, “I was in the daily habit of using intoxicating drinks, and scarce ever drank water without mixing them with it. Since the introduction of that water, I have almost abandoned the use of such drinks. …I do not want them.”[30] Impressed with such testimony, Boston’s temperance advocates hoped to entice people away from alcohol with a glass of cold, pure, wholesome water. They enthusiastically threw their support behind a municipal system that would guarantee large amounts of water to all corners of the city.[31]

Intent on removing alcohol from every table, temperance reformers across America made water the rallying symbol and principal icon of their movement. Advocates referred to their membership as the “Cold Water Army” and pledged to drink nothing but water. John Pierpont, a Unitarian minister in Boston and a strident advocate of temperance and other reform causes, wrote a number of celebratory poems and songs with names such as “We Sing the Praise of Water,” “The Cup for Me,” and “Cold Water.”[32] Another of Pierpont’s songs, written for the Friends of Temperance in 1838, encouraged the listener to plant the temperance standard near a well and to sing the praises of brooks, rain, and cisterns.[33]

Evangelical Christianity, which supplied the temperance movement with much of its fervor, also provided biblical justifications for proclaiming water the most moral of beverages. Water, argued the religiously minded, had been the only drink in Eden and would be the only drink in Heaven. They also claimed that the Bible attested to water’s central role in the unfolding of God’s covenant. Was it just a coincidence that human longevity decreased after Noah planted the first vineyard?[34] Would the Israelites have found their way out of the desert if, instead of releasing water from a rock with his staff, Moses had built a still?[35]

Framing water as an essential element of nature enhanced its symbolic power even further. Influenced by romanticism, temperance reformers portrayed water as the creation of nature and, by extension, of God. They cast alcohol in the role of water’s antithesis, the corrupt invention of humankind. One temperance writer contrasted the two by juxtaposing the environments that produced them: “Not in the simmering still, over smoky fires, choked with poisonous gases and surrounded with the stench of sickening odors and rank corruptions, doth our Father in heaven prepare the precious essence of life—the pure cold water.” Rather, one would find the birthplace of water in the pastoral landscape: “In the green glade and grassy dell, where the red deer wanders, and the child loves to play, there God brews it.”[36] While alcohol was antithetical to God and nature, water was a “drink divine” and “nature’s nectar.”[37] Romantic ideas of nature helped to transform a mundane replacement for alcohol into a powerful elixir that dispensed morality to the faithful. At the same time, the uniquely urban need for a large-scale water system shaped romantic interpretations of water.

Many reformers also believed that water, in addition to encouraging cleanliness and temperance, could promote moral reform by dancing in a fountain where its romantic visual qualities would soften the hearts of the city’s citizens. Nehemiah Adams, pastor of the Essex Street Church, maintained that the possessor of a troubled mind could find relief by “lingering around a playing fountain, and seeing its vigorous, graceful stream mounting into the air, waving in the wind, and falling back into its bed.” The benefits for the community could be just as great, since fountains could “leave a soothing and refreshing influence, and stir the social, kind feelings of the people.”[38] Adams longed to see a fountain on Boston Common, where the city’s residents would encounter its magic daily, but he rejected suggestions that it use seawater or recycled roof runoff. For a fountain to soothe the mind, temper passions, and improve morality, he insisted that its water had to be free of all impurities and unstained by previous use—as virginal as nature itself. Even those less swept away by the potential of pastoral nature agreed that fountains had useful reformative powers that made municipal water all the more essential.[39]

The connection between urban fountains and social reform was of recent vintage. Traditionally, fountains had played utilitarian, aesthetic, and civic roles in Western culture. They brought water to thirsty people, and their elaborate designs beautified cities and proclaimed the power of the state. No one expected a fountain’s water to improve the morality of a city’s residents.[40] That changed when romanticism’s vision of a benevolent nature provided reformers with a new set of ideas that they could apply to fountains. Andrew Jackson Downing, America’s first great landscape architect, added modest fountains to the country estates he designed. Downing claimed that no country seat was complete without a view of water, and he considered a simple series of jets emerging from a pool to be the only kind of fountain appropriate to natural settings. When New Yorkers completed the Croton water works and built a large fountain in City Hall Park, they chose this “natural” design over the ornate fountains so common in European cities, just as they later would choose Frederick Law Olmsted’s “natural” design for Central Park over more elaborate proposals. The watery shapes that emerged from the jets even carried the names of the natural forms they evoked: the Sheaf of Wheat, the Bouquet, the Weeping Willow. Bostonians would select a similar design for their fountain just a few years later, embracing Channing’s conviction that such simple sprays of water “give tone and purity to the public heart.” Like advocates of cleanliness and temperance, romantics placed a heavy social burden on water and sustained faith in their cause through the belief that nature could better society.[41]

Opposition to the Reform Vision

BUT LITTLE AGREEMENT existed within the scientific community about the benefits of pure water. Although the minerals and other impurities in Boston’s well water inspired the strongest clamor against it, even the city’s most esteemed doctors disagreed about their effects on human health. On the one hand, Dr. John Warren asserted that local well water caused various stomach and digestive disorders that ceased when the person stopped drinking the water. He identified bad water as a source of fevers and claimed that vegetables cooked in brackish water could produce disease. Dr. Nathaniel Shurtleff laid the blame for “calculous” and “bilious” disorders squarely on the city’s well water, and Walter Channing claimed to have heard that “hard water takes off varnish from chaises.” On the other hand, Dr. George Hayward doubted that salts and minerals in the water could cause harm, and Dr. B. P. Randall thought that the hardness of the city’s water would affect only new residents, since the local population probably was used to it. In the absence of adequate scientific research on the topic, these doctors had only their individual experiences to draw on and came to different conclusions as a result.[42]

Advocates of privately supplied water quickly exploited the lack of a scientific consensus. E. H. Derby, a lawyer representing groups opposed to a municipal system, defended the hardness of the city’s groundwater as a positive attribute. He asked whether “a little lime and a little salt” could possibly be harmful. The body could not live without salt, he noted, and lime might actually prove to be beneficial. “The chemists told us that the bones of the body were made up of phosphate of lime,” Derby argued, “and if we got a little with our water, it could not be very deleterious.” Representatives of the Boston Aqueduct Corporation also defended the city’s well water, ridiculing chemical tests that pronounced it “not pure.” Since only distillation could produce truly pure water, the company claimed, the standard of purity was ridiculously high.[43]

Another challenge to the health benefits claimed for soft water came in the unexpected form of “animalcules,” or microscopic life. In the 1840s, scientists found these tiny animals and plants in Long Pond, a large lake twenty miles from Boston considered one of the best potential sources of a municipal water supply. Since animalcules were visible only under a microscope, most of the city’s residents had neither seen nor heard of them. The announcement of their existence, however, stirred fears about drinking water filled with “insects.” Both supporters and opponents of municipal water quickly politicized the animalcules as they battled over their significance.[44]

Defenders of a city-built system rushed to placate the public’s fears. Nathan Hale, one of the commissioners appointed by the city to resolve the water debate, argued that it would be impossible to find a source of water free of animalcules. He supported drawing water from Long Pond despite the presence of animalcules and suggested that “The only remedy against them is, to avoid too curious a search by microscopic eyes.”[45] His advice was less than comforting. Channing, another advocate of Long Pond water, tried to disarm his adversaries by poking fun at those who feared that such small creatures “are about to devour, or to choke so many of our worthy burgesses.” But public concern could not be dismissed so easily.[46]

Opponents of a municipal system leapt at the chance to discredit the quality of water in Long Pond. A supporter of tapping the privately-owned Spot Pond warned that the animalcules would expand as they advanced through the proposed aqueduct and grow to the size of “gallinippers or dragon flies” by the time they reached the city.[47] Another advocate of private water distributed a broadside that contained a satirical cartoon showing a scientist explaining an image of Long Pond water magnified by a microscope. The enlarged view revealed water teeming with tiny creatures bearing horns, claws, tails, and multiple appendages. Most of those attending the scientist’s presentation recoiled from the image. One Irish man, playing off the common euphemism of whiskey as a “drop of the creature,” called the water “a dhrop of a thousand cratures,” while another character sighed: “Well if this is pure water I’m glad I never signed the Pledge.” The most optimistic member of the crowd was a doctor who predicted that the water “would prove a great blessing” to the poor, since it would “appease both thirst and hunger.”[48]

The city’s water commissioners finally put the matter to rest in 1845 by consulting outside experts. Professors from Yale College and West Point, presumed to have no interest in the outcome of the debate, assured the public that animalcules were not a health threat and were present in the public water supplies of Philadelphia and New York City. The issue subsequently lost its political value and disappeared from public debate. For a time, however, the city’s citizens had mixed natural science and urban politics as they struggled to fit microscopic life into their understanding of urban nature.[49]

Opponents of public water also resisted efforts to link the movement to the temperance crusade. A pamphleteer who called himself the “Selfish Taxpayer” insisted that blaming the poor quality of the water for a brandy drinker’s behavior merely provided an excuse for bad habits. “By recognizing such a pretence, as a legitimate apology,” he declared, “we authorize the tippler to tipple on.” A believer in total abstinence, “Selfish” feared most for moderate drinkers. If temperance leaders permitted them “to imagine, for one moment, that they are justifiable in their attempts to improve bad water by the addition of rank poison,” then the claim that all alcohol consumption was born of moral bankruptcy would lose credibility. Besides, he predicted, an abundance of pure water would change nothing: Drinkers simply would find another excuse for their behavior.[50]

Still other opponents attacked romantic fountains. One critic, who called himself “Anti-Humbug,” did not doubt that fountains could temper the hearts of urbanites. Rather, he complained that few residents would be around to enjoy them, since the fountains would play only in summer when many fled the city for cooler climes. More importantly, he insisted that New York City’s magnificent fountain—made possible by its municipally owned water system—only played “when [the city’s] democracy will permit the hundred hydrants which flow gratis for them to be occasionally locked up.” New York’s street hydrants serviced the needs of the working-class parts of the city, and “Anti-Humbug” believed that a finite supply of water meant that hydrants and fountains could not have water at the same time. He feared that Boston’s laboring classes would likewise hold the city’s water hostage while the public fountains sat idle.[51]

Water as a Common Resource

TO FULFILL their vision of a healthier and more moral citizenry, water reformers had to do more than overcome these criticisms—they also had to discredit the option of chartering private water companies. They did so by attacking the idea of commodifying water. Reformers embraced the working-class experience of water as a commons and then went beyond it to argue that water’s essential role in sustaining life made it closer in its nature to air and sunshine than to other natural resources.[52] This understanding reflected the sense of scarcity that clung to water in the urban environment, but responded to it with a call for cooperation rather than competition.

The moral valence that reformers gave to water challenged the established economic calculus. Contemporaries understood that most commodities received their value from a combination of supply and demand: When supply exceeded demand, the value fell, and when demand outpaced supply, the value rose. But in an address before the legislature, a representative who favored a public water system articulated a different principle for establishing the worth of water. “The value of an article depends, in a great measure,” he claimed, “upon the inconvenience and suffering occasioned by the want of it. Water is as essential to life and health as bread; and, like air, it should be had without stint or measure.”[53]

This interpretation of value transcended impersonal market forces and invoked the concept of a moral economy. If the want of a particular good caused widespread suffering, then supply-and-demand mechanisms did not apply, and people should have it “without stint or measure.” Henry Williams, a friend of Walter Channing, also embraced this vision of water and dismissed the idea of a privately constructed and maintained system as “preposterous in the extreme.” To Williams, selling water for profit made no more sense than “farming out the pure air of heaven, of placing it in the hands of a few men among us to be stintedly doled outat a price.”[54] Public water advocates from New York City to Paris had made identical arguments against commodification when considering systems for their cities.[55]

Some reformers likened water to other essential human needs best served by public institutions. “[The city] does not entrust the public education to private corporations, that men may speculate in individual culture, or popular ignorance,” wrote Channing. “It does not entrust the care of the public health to private companies, which may grow rich upon disease.” If the city did not entrust these essential functions to the private sector, then “neither should it for a moment admit the thought that the water men may, yes, must drink, should be doled out to them as it may suit individual caprice, or corporate enterprise.”[56] Whatever a society judged to be essential to the health and happiness of its people, argued Channing, should never become the responsibility of a profit-driven entity.

The claim that urban water supplies should stand outside of market forces did not go unchallenged. Some feared that the entry of municipalities into a traditionally private arena would turn the entire economic system on its head. E. H. Derby painted municipal water as the first step down a slippery slope: “There were other necessaries of life which [the city] might as well undertake to supply, as water. There were air, light, heat, clothing. Next year the city might come in there and ask for powers, under a vote of the citizens, to carry out some new project for supplying heat and gas from the interior of the earth; or to borrow money at four per cent. to supply clothing for the poor, that the manufacturers need not charge them thirty per cent.”[57] Derby maintained that making water a public rather than private responsibility would set a dangerous precedent and ultimately undermine the nation’s commitment to free enterprise.

Even more threatening to the view of water as a commodity was the suggestion that the city not only build a public water works but also distribute the water without charge. In the fall of 1844, a local merchant named John Wilkins published two articles in the Boston Courier arguing for the free distribution of water with the cost paid by a general tax. He hoped that supporting the system with a tax rather than water rents would encourage more people to use the water since they were paying for it anyway. The poor would be exempted from the tax and receive the water like charity.[58] But opponents of a municipal system bristled at the idea. The “Selfish Taxpayer” warned that Wilkins’ plan would force enormous tax increases on property owners, and he believed strongly that, whether a private or public system emerged, every user should pay his own water rent. Wilkins’ position remained a minority one even among reformers supporting public water.[59]

Many working-class Bostonians, however, held out hope that the city might distribute water without charge after it had paid down the construction debt. From the perspective of capitalists, this was a radical proposal. But from the perspective of laborers, it was conservative because their families probably paid for water rarely if at all. L. M. Sargent, the principal stockholder of the Boston Aqueduct Corporation, claimed that he had “been told by more than one respectable mechanic of this city” that he supported municipal water “on a presumption, that he would have the water, as he has the high way, for nothing.” To the mechanic, free water would be business as usual, but to Sargent, it heralded the end of free enterprise: “When this demand shall have been obtained, competition must cease, and we shall endeavor to contemplate the ruin of our property, as philosophically as possible.”[60]

Winning the Battle, Interpreting the Victory

THROUGHOUT THE DEBATE, which intensified through the 1830s and 1840s, the most vocal opponents of public water remained wealthy citizens resisting increased taxes. But other individuals and several corporations that feared larger financial losses joined the effort to dampen the growing clamor for water. Holders of property that lay in the path of the proposed pipelines feared losing their lands; mill owners opposed any plan that would redirect the water powering their factories; and agents of the Middlesex Canal, which had been in financial trouble for years, claimed that an aqueduct would divert unacceptable amounts of water from their channel. The proprietors of the Boston Hydraulic Company and the Spot Pond Aqueduct Corporation also joined the fight. Incorporated in 1836 and 1843 to develop water through private investment, they saw little chance of building up their franchises if municipal water became a reality. But the Boston Aqueduct Corporation had even more to lose since it already had achieved financial success. An inexpensive supply of municipal water would destroy the company, and since it relied on a site-specific resource and fixed infrastructure, its stockholders could not move it elsewhere.[61]

These groups worked hard to portray the growing momentum for municipal water as an unjustified clamor of the poor against the rich. But the pro-water forces actually represented an alliance of middle- and upper-class reformers and working-class urbanites. Reform-minded mayors and physicians, many active in multiple reform movements, directed the campaign for water just as they led the crusades for temperance and abolition. The working classes followed the debates carefully and provided the votes when needed.[62]

Two decades of deliberation culminated in a final year of intensive political maneuverings that lasted from the spring of 1845 to the spring of 1846. Public water advocates established Water Unions on a ward level to organize support, while broadsides battled for the public’s attention. The Spot Pond Aqueduct Corporation, desperate to prove its civic-mindedness, offered to limit its profits to 10 percent if the city promised to stay out of the water business. But opponents derided the company as mercenary and duplicitous.[63] Swept along by growing support for a municipal system, the city council petitioned the legislature for an act that would allow it to bring water from Long Pond to Boston. The legislation passed in March 1846, and a few weeks later Boston’s citizens accepted the Water Act by an overwhelming margin of 4,637 to 348. The Boston Total Abstinence Society celebrated the victory on the Fourth of July by hauling three thousand gallons of water from Long Pond to Boston Common and distributing “Nature’s beverage” to thirsty bystanders.[64]

Construction of the new works began later that summer, and water reached Boston just over two years later in October 1848. The water ran from Long Pond (renamed “Lake Cochituate”) through a fifteen-mile-long brick aqueduct to a hilltop reservoir in neighboring Brookline. The reservoir could hold up to 100 million gallons of water, enough to supply the city for two weeks if difficulties ever interrupted service from the lake. From there, the water flowed another five miles and filled two smaller reservoirs within the city. They fed over sixty miles of cast-iron pipes that workers had laid beneath every inhabited street.[65]

To celebrate the arrival of water, city officials organized a parade that proved large enough to support multiple interpretations of the new public water system. Jubilant temperance marchers recalled their central role in the water movement’s success by filling an entire division by themselves. Eleven temperance organizations from various parts of the state marched with colorful flags proclaiming their love for pure water. Members of the Boston Temperance Society carried a white banner that read on the front, “O, that’s the drink for me,” and on the reverse, “The Second Declaration of Independence.” The standard of the Washington Total Abstinence Society declared: “Goddess of Temperance, we bow to thee!”, and a uniformed section of the Cadets of Temperance from nearby East Cambridge bore a banner with the words “Our Distillery” over a scene of Niagara Falls. Additional companies of temperance marchers came from all over New England to participate in the celebration.[66]

The crowd received sheets of lyrics composed by two temperance advocates and set to popular tunes. William Bingham Tappan praised the better health and increased cleanliness that water promised, and rejoiced as “Alcohol’s conqueror merrily comes/To the shout of hurrahs and the music of drums.” George Russell welcomed “nature’s nectar” and celebrated the fact that all the city’s residents would benefit from its powers.[67]

Another song, written by a local mechanic and disseminated informally during the parade, better reflected the reaction of the working classes. The author, Benjamin Penhallow Shillaber, was both a printer and an accomplished poet. His contribution to the festivities, “A Song for the Merry-Making on Water Day,” was one of the parade’s highlights. Working on a mounted press pulled by four horses, his fellow printers struck off and handed out elaborately decorated lyric sheets as they road along. Shillaber’s song set a festive tone as it described the trading of work for the most boisterous of celebrations. But rather than predicting water’s contribution to sobriety, Shillaber’s song interpreted Boston’s new supply of water as a gift from God. Joyously declaring the “Advent Day of Water,” the song attributed a “holy” influence to water as it completed its “blessed mission” to supply everyone in the city. The universal distribution of water lay at the heart of Shillaber’s composition, which stressed water’s importance to the working classes. Water came “to cheer the high and lowly,” and “a gladsome shout from the mass goes out” to welcome its arrival. “Every tongue shall swell the song,” Shillaber continued, “Whate’er its rank or station.” If any doubt remained about water’s true utility, he spelled it out plainly:
Hail, hopeful stream! From thy bright gleam
Our hearts reflect the omen,
That water’s want no more will haunt
The thirsty man or woman.
Romantic and temperance imagery had no place in the poet printer’s celebration. An abundance of water would cure the people’s thirst, and that was enough.[68]

Water as Commodityand Commons

THE LOFTY EXPECTATIONS of water proponents, however, soon would be disappointed. It quickly became clear that working-class neighborhoods would not see water in the abundance that many had anticipated. Although the city took the unusual step of bringing water pipes right up to private buildings at public expense, landlords remained unwilling to pay for plumbing in their tenements. As a result, many Bostonians who lived in rented apartments used the new public hydrants installed throughout the city. The quality of water dramatically improved, but the inconvenience of relying on distant street hydrants shared by many families placed practical limits on the use of the water. As late as 1868, only one hydrant serviced the 72 tenements and 350 residents of Institute Avenue in the North End.[69] Such small and inconvenient supplies of water could not possibly provide all the benefits for which reformers had hoped.

Another blow to public expectations came just two years after the completion of the water works, when city officials repudiated the idea of free water. As late as the water celebration, the mayor had indicated that the city, after paying off the debt, might distribute water free of charge.[70] But demand grew quickly and waste was endemic, leading the city’s water commissioners to guard the supply jealously. The larger obstacle, however, proved to be a legal one. In 1850, a local charitable organization asked the city to provide water to it at no charge, but officials refused the request. They based their decision on an opinion provided by the city solicitor, who declared that the law viewed water as valuable property that the city held in trust for all its citizens. “If the City Council may give the water to one institution of this kind,” explained the solicitor, “they may to all. If they may give it to a charitable institution, they may to an individual. If they may give it to a poor corporation, they may to a poor man.” City officials, concluded the solicitor, could no more give away water in such a haphazard fashion than they could give away the public lands.[71]

The solicitor’s opinion made it clear that, despite the best efforts of public water advocates, the new system invested water with many characteristics of a commodity. Legally, the city’s water supply was municipal property and therefore subject to laws that governed its sale and distribution. Socially, those who could pay more received it in larger quantities and with greater convenience than their neighbors. Economically, city officials sold water within a market, albeit a government-controlled one. Water did retain an important characteristic of a common resource—all residents of the city had a right to it and some degree of access. But Boston’s water supply, once the system’s operating principals became clear, settled into a gray area between common and commodity.

Commodification had an intellectual component as well. Annual water payments, city-installed meters, and scientific estimates of water usage abstracted water from the natural forms and sources that had been central to the imagery employed by reformers. Citizens must have listened in amazement as engineers argued over whether an average individual used twenty or sixty gallons of water per day, and watched with wonder as scientists calculated the needs of the city in the millions of gallons. In 1839, Samuel Eliot had reported that the estimate of the city’s water needs “was an aggregate so large as to create some surprise and alarm.”[72] When the language of experts became the language of public debate, it introduced the city’s residents to levels of quantification that were entirely new to them. In time, informal ways of thinking about water—the bucket, the well, the lake—gave way to the more precise and market-oriented “gallon” and “dollar.” The municipal system insulated water from market forces, but it also encouraged urbanites to think of water as a commodity.

Like the dreams of the city’s laboring classes, the expectations of reformers remained unfulfilled. Few would have claimed that the new water system markedly improved the morality of the city’s residents. Arrests for drunkenness actually increased in the next few years.[73] Benefits to public health also could be difficult to detect. Although cleaner water undoubtedly improved individual health and reduced the number and severity of epidemics, tenement districts remained awash in sewage for decades. The relentless flood of immigrants and the ruthless pace of industrialization compounded these failures. Even if Boston’s water had been as free and accessible as the most optimistic reformers had hoped, it still could not have begun to ameliorate the drunkenness, dissipation, and wretched environmental conditions that plagued the city.

Yet the crusade for municipal water was anything but a failure. Although its moral accomplishments are doubtful, it represented a major expansion of governmental control over the management of public health and made pure water the right of all citizens rather than a privilege of the few. Public water remains an enduring legacy of antebellum reform and early nineteenth-century thinking about nature.


TODAY WE STILL can hear echoes of the tension between public and private water systems that Bostonians struggled to resolve. In recent years, the ownership and management of urban water supplies has begun to shift from public to private worldwide. Crumbling facilities in the cities of the developed world, and a lack of adequate infrastructure in newly urbanizing regions, have encouraged international water cartels to lobby for privatization. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund now pressure developing countries to privatize their water supplies to qualify for loans, and such large American cities as Milwaukee and Indianapolis have turned to private management. Officials in New Orleans are currently considering the privatization of their massive system, while Atlanta recently bucked the trend by restoring public control after a bitter experience with a private company. The growing inclination to trade public for private water has inspired news pieces with titles like “Who Owns Water?” and “Turning Water into Gold.”[74]

The rich mixture of meanings assigned to water also survives. Fearing that private water companies will deplete global supplies and price water beyond the means of the poor, opponents of privatization insist that water is “a gift from God” and use more contemporary environmental imagery to claim that water “belongs to the earth and all species for all time.”[75] Twenty-first-century concerns about social justice and environmental degradation now inform the defense of public water.

Antebellum Bostonians were not deciding the future of an existing water system, however, but building one from the ground up. They wrestled with that challenge during the country’s first great period of city building, when urbanites transformed natural environment into urban environment at an astonishing rate and established new connections with the natural world. The city’s water system would provide one of those new connections, and it seemed to carry the potential to alter relationships to water so dramatically that Boston’s residents found themselves reconceptualizing water itself. In the process, they made a unique—and uniquely urban—contribution to nineteenth-century discussions about the meaning of nature.

Michael Rawson is a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation, which explores the relationship between ideas of nature and nineteenth-century city building, received the 2003 Carter Manny Award from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.


My thanks to Adam Rome, William Cronon, Stanley Schultz, Paul Boyer, and two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on various versions of this article. I also received invaluable comments from William Barnett, Greg Bond, James Feldman, David Herzberg, Hiroshi Kitamura, Thomas Robertson, Kendra Smith, Christopher Wells, and the members of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Boston Environmental History Seminar.
1. Detailed descriptions of the parade appear in Celebration of the Introduction of Pure Water into the City of Boston, October 25, 1848 (Boston: J. H. Eastburn, 1848); and Illustrated Mail–Extra, 25 October 1848, Cabot Science Library, Harvard University.

2. For histories that explore the debates preceding the construction of Boston’s municipal water system, see Sarah S. Elkind, Bay Cities and Water Politics: The Battle for Resources in Boston and Oakland (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998); and Nelson M. Blake, Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Supply Problem in the United States (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1956). Also see Nathaniel J. Bradlee, History of the Introduction of Pure Water into the City of Boston, with a Description of Its Cochituate Water Works (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1868). For other antebellum cities, see Sam Bass Warner, The Private City: Philadelphia in Three Periods of Its Growth (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968); Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Thomas F. Armstrong, “Not for ‘Barter and Speculation’: A Comparative Study of Antebellum Virginia Urban Water Supply,” Southern Studies 18 (1979): 304–19.

3. See, for example, Michael Bunce, The Countryside Ideal: Anglo-American Images of Landscape (New York: Routledge, 1994); Peter J. Schmitt, Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969); John Stilgoe, Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820–1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988); and Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

4. The most comprehensive treatment of the relationship between sanitary thinking and the development of water and sewer infrastructure is Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).

5. City of Boston, Statement of Evidence before the Committee of the Legislature at the Session of 1839, on the Petition of the City of Boston, for the Introduction of Pure Soft Water (Boston: John H. Eastburn, City Printer, 1839), 25, 35.

6. Little specific information about the city’s water resources before the construction of the Cochituate works has survived. Questions about who owned particular sources, who used them, and how they used them can be answered only in broad outline. The most informative sources are Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, A Topographical and Historical Description of Boston (Boston: Noyes, Holmes, and Company, 1872), 388–97; and the town records in City of Boston, Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston (Boston: Municipal Printing Office, various dates). For a discussion of the “old conduit,” built in 1652 and one of the first water works in America, see Shurtleff, 398–405.

7. Private water companies are discussed in Melosi, The Sanitary City, chapter 4. For a discussion of how the antebellum culture of privatism encouraged the use of wells, cisterns, and private water companies over municipal water works, see Maureen Ogle, “Water Supply, Waste Disposal, and the Culture of Privatism in the Mid-Nineteenth-Century American City,” Journal of Urban History 25 (1999): 321–47. Jean-Pierre Goubert discusses the commodification of urban water in France in The Conquest of Water: The Advent of Health in the Industrial Age, trans. Andrew Wilson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989); and Theodore Steinberg explores the commodification of water for industrial uses in Nature Incorporated: Industrialization and the Waters of New England (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991). For the commodification of nature more generally, see William J. Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991). On the shifting line between public and private responsibility in the nineteenth-century city, see Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833–1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

8. For complaints about the Boston Aqueduct Corporation, see Nathan Hale, Proceedings Before a Joint Special Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature, Upon the Petition of the City of Boston, for Leave to Introduce a Supply of Pure Water into that City, From Long Pond, February and March, 1845 (Boston: John H. Eastburn, 1845), 35–36; and Walter Channing, A Plea for Pure Water: Being a Letter to Henry Williams, esq., by Walter Channing: With an Address “To the Citizens of Boston,” by Mr. H. Williams (Boston: S.N. Dickinson, 1844), 9–10. On the profitability of the corporation, see L. M. Sargent, Boston Aqueduct and the City of Boston (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1849), 7.

9. Josiah Quincy, A Municipal History of the Town and City of Boston, During Two Centuries. From September 17, 1630, to September 17, 1830 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1852), 160; John C. Warren to Josiah Quincy, 25 November 1825, Quincy Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

10. Loammi Baldwin, Report on Introducing Pure Water into the City of Boston, 2nd ed., with additions (Boston: Hilliard, Gray and Co., 1835), 78. For the quality of cistern water, see Hale, Proceedings, 120; and Theodore Lyman, Jr., Communication to the City Council, on the Subject of Introducing Water in the City (Boston: J.H. Eastburn), 7–8.

11. City of Boston, Statement of Evidence, 3. Decreases in the quality of water supplies in American cities did not lead inevitably to the tapping of pure and ample sources, despite Gerard Koeppel’s claim that “One way or another, good water is always obtained by cities.” Koeppel, Water for Gotham, 5. Rather, responses grew out of complex historical contexts in which urbanites assigned different meanings and levels of importance to pure water. Even today, social, economic, and political circumstances force millions of city dwellers worldwide to rely on scarce and polluted water resources.

12. Baldwin, Report on Pure Water, 75–77.

13. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 7.

14. Few antebellum Bostonians expressed the fear of monopoly that would rile urban reformers in the Progressive Era. They expected competition among several companies to provide the foundation of a private water system. In their endorsement of a system like London’s, however, advocates of private water neglected to mention that no real competition existed between London’s water companies because they had divided the city among themselves into monopoly districts. For a social and economic analysis of the tension between private and public control of urban water resources in Great Britain, see John Hassan, A History of Water in Modern England and Wales (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998). Hassan claims that water has a “natural monopoly characteristic” (5). For the specific case of London, see Bill Luckin, Pollution and Control: A Social History of the Thames in the Nineteenth Century (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1986).

15. For a defense of private water, see L. M. Sargent, Mr. Sargent’s Communication (Boston: 1838).

16. Samuel A. Eliot, Soft Water, City Document No. 25 (Boston: 1839), 14–15. For a critique of private water, see Nathan Hale, Inquiry into the Best Mode of Supplying the City of Boston with Water for Domestic Purposes; in Reply to the Pamphlets of Mr. Wilkins and Mr. Shattuck; and Also to Some of the Representations to the Committee of the Legislature, on the Hearing of the Petition of the City (Boston: Eastburn’s Press, 1845). Reasons for choosing public over private water systems in the antebellum period depended heavily on local context. Sam Bass Warner, Jr., for example, argues that Philadelphians chose public water in reaction to the catastrophic yellow fever epidemic of 1793, and then improved that system in the 1820s to maintain a safe environment for the business community. “The goal,” claims Warner, “was never to help raise the level of living of the poor.” In Philadelphia, fear of disease and the culture of privatism trumped social reform and humanitarian concerns. Warner, The Private City, 109.

17. The battle waged for moral order by nineteenth-century middle and upper-class urbanites is discussed in Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820–1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

18. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 6. Historians have largely overlooked the important context of antebellum reform in their study of how communities chose between public and private water systems. Similarly, scholars of antebellum reform rarely discuss debates over urban water supplies, perhaps because water movements drew support from a variety of different causes (temperance, health, charity) and therefore fit awkwardly into the framework traditionally employed to understand the period. In fact, most “environmental” reforms, including parks and model tenement houses, do not appear in the standard syntheses of antebellum reform, despite the impact they had on urban populations. See Ronald G. Walters, American Reformers, 1815–1860 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), and Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

19. For working-class support, see J. Preston in Shattuck, Letter from Lemuel Shattuck in Answer to Interrogatories of J. Preston: In Relation To the Introduction of Water into the City of Boston (Boston: Samuel N. Dickinson, 1845), 4; and the petition analysis in A Selfish Taxpayer, Thoughts About Water (Boston: 1844), 14.

20. For the connection between the sanitary idea and the construction of urban water systems, see Melosi, The Sanitary City. For bathhouses, see Marilyn Thornton Williams, Washing “The Great Unwashed”: Public Baths in Urban America, 1840–1920 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991). For an anthropological perspective on the relationship between ideas of pollution and the social order, see Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1966). Douglas argues that “certain moral rules are upheld and certain social rules defined by beliefs in dangerous contagion” (3). The public water movement reinforced a broader expansion of the role of municipal government in public health. See John Duffy, The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990). For Massachusetts specifically, see Barbara G. Rosenkrantz, Public Health and the State: Changing Views in Massachusetts, 1842–1936 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972).

21. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 4. For a biography of Channing, see Amalie M. Kass, Midwifery and Medicine in Boston: Walter Channing, M.D., 1786–1876 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002).

22. See the testimonies of Dr. George Hayward and Channing, City of Boston, Statement of Evidence, 37–41.

23. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 7–8.

24. City of Boston, Statement of Evidence, 54–55.

25. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 14.

26. For a social and cultural history of personal cleanliness, see Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History 74 (March 1988), 1213–38.

27. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 14.

28. Ibid., 8.

29. City of Boston, Statement of Evidence (1839), 56.

30. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 15.

31. Historians of temperance have paid little attention to the role played by temperance advocates in bringing municipal water to American cities, and the evidence does not support W. J. Rorabaugh’s claim that temperance reformers waited untilafter cities improved water supplies before supporting the substitution of water for alcohol. See W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 97. The most systematic study of the temperance movement in America, which focuses mostly on the Northeast, is Ian R. Tyrrell, Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800–1860 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979). For interest among antebellum capitalists in using temperance as a means of social control, see Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978). For the structure and composition of the temperance movement in Massachusetts during this period, see Robert L. Hampel, Temperance and Prohibition in Massachusetts, 1813–1852 (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1982).

32. See particularly John Pierpont, Cold Water Melodies, and Washingtonian Songster, 2nd ed. (Boston: Theodore Abbot, 1843). Historians of temperance have yet to turn their attention to the iconography of water, which became the principal symbol of the temperance cause.

33. John Pierpont, “Lift Up, Lift Up the Standard,” in Airs of Palestine and Other Poems (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1840), 197. Pierpont’s son, James, inherited his father’s talent for composition and authored “Jingle Bells” in the 1850s.

34. John Howard Bryant, “Lines Read Before the Princeton, (Bureau County,) Washingtonian Society,” in Poems by John Howard Bryant (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1855), 184.

35. Pierpont, “In Eden’s Green Retreats,” in Airs of Palestine, 188–89.

36. Anonymous, “Water,” in The Crystal Gem, J. S. A., ed. (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1853), 27.

37. Pierpont, “Lift Up, Lift Up the Standard,” in Airs of Palestine, 197, and William Bingham Tappan and George Russell, Celebration Hymns, on the Introduction of the Cochituate Water in Boston, October 25, 1848 (Boston: Old Dickinson Printing Office, 1848).

38. Nehemiah Adams, Boston Common (Boston: William D. Ticknor and H.B. Williams, 1842), 48, 49.

39. Channing and Eliot praised fountains. See Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 27, and Eliot, Soft Water, 10.

40. One of the few historical treatments of the social and symbolic roles played by urban fountains is Jean-Pierre Goubert, The Conquest of Water, 69–82, 244–5.

41. For Andrew Jackson Downing’s treatment of water generally, see Downing, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), 276–95, and for fountains specifically, see 394–401. For a description of New York City’s fountain, see Lydia Maria Child, Letters from New-York, ed. Bruce Mills (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998), 132–33. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 27.

42. Channing’s comment is from City of Boston, Statement of Evidence, 41. All other medical opinions are from Lyman, Communication to the City Council, 8–13. Other cities experienced the same range of interpretations. See Blake, Water for the Cities, 249–51.

43. Hale, Proceedings, 16;Memorial Presented to the Board of Common Councilmen by the Boston Aqueduct Corporation on May 19, 1838, 4–5. Derby’s opinion, although uninformed by scientific evidence, was actually closer to the present-day medical understanding. Hard water, which is high in dissolved minerals, especially calcium and magnesium, is a nuisance but not a health hazard. The water-related ailments encountered by Boston’s doctors in the nineteenth century likely resulted from groundwater impurities unrelated to its hardness.

44. A similar debate over the significance of animalcules took place in England between 1850 and 1852. See Christopher Hamlin, A Science of Impurity: Water Analysis in Nineteenth Century Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 102–5.

45. Hale, Inquiry, 48.

46. Walter Channing, Parliamentary Sketches and Water Statistics: Being Another Word Addressed to the Citizens of Boston, in Support of Supplying the City with the Pure Water of Long Pond (Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1845), 4.

47.Boston Daily Argus, 30 September 1845, as quoted in Blake, Water for the Cities, 252.

48. “A Drop of Long Pond Water Magnified by the Solar Microscope” (n.p., c. 1845), Massachusetts Historical Society.

49. Blake, Water for the Cities, 253.

50. Selfish Taxpayer, Thoughts About Water, 15.

51.Boston Evening Transcript, 3 September 1844.

52. See, for example, Illustrated Mail-Extra, 4, Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 35, and Hale, Inquiry, 28.

53.Illustrated Mail-Extra, 4.

54. Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 35.

55. For New York City, see Blake, Water for the Cities, 140. For Paris, see André Guillerme, “The Genesis of Water Supply, Distribution, and Sewerage Systems in France, 1800–1850,” in Technology and the Rise of the Networked City in Europe and America, ed. Joel Tarr and Gabriel Dupuy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 108–9. This period saw tendencies both to commodify and de-commodity water, although in different environmental settings. In Nature Incorporated, Theodore Steinberg shows that changes in laws regarding water rights in the early nineteenth century encouraged economic development and resulted in the increased commodification of water used to power rural factories. At the same time, however, legal changes that enhanced the police power of urban governments paved the way for municipal water systems that removed urban water supplies from the influence of traditional market forces. For an analysis of the growth of the police power regarding water rights, see Stanley Schultz, Constructing Urban Culture: American Cities and City Planning, 1800–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 53–57.

56. Channing, Parliamentary Sketches, 27. Also see Channing, Plea for Pure Water, 24.

57. Hale, Proceedings, 12–13.

58.Boston Courier, 24 September 1844 and 25 September 1844. Wilkins later republished his views in two pamphlets. See John H. Wilkins, Remarks on Supplying the City of Boston with Pure Water (Boston: Wilkins, Carter, 1845) and Further Remarks on Supplying the City of Boston with Pure Water; An Answer Mainly to Inquiry into the Best Mode of Supplying the City of Boston with Water for Domestic Purposes, Etc. (Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1845), 63–67.

59. Selfish Taxpayer, Thoughts About Water. The Selfish Taxpayer’s “pay for what you get” approach to public services echoes the municipal philosophy explored by Robin Einhorn in Property Rules. For supporters of public water who opposed Wilkins’s rent-free system, see Henry Williams in Channing, A Plea for Pure Water, 34, and Nathan Hale (who admitted that it might make sense for the poor, but not for everyone) in Hale, Inquiry, 5–6.

60. Sargent, Communication, 8. Mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr., later responded positively to the widespread desire for free water in his speech at the water celebration, in which he twice expressed hope that water someday would be “distributed without cost.” See Celebration of the Introduction of Water, 40–41.

61. For opponents of public water and their arguments, see Hale, Proceedings, and Elkind, Bay Cities, 24.

62. The role of Boston’s mayors in the water debates is discussed in Elkind, Bay Cities, 22–23.

63. Broadside, signed “A Friend to the Best Water” (1845), Cabot Science Library, Harvard University.

64. Moses Grant to the Mayor and Aldermen of Boston, 6 July 1846, City of Boston Archives.

65.History of Boston, from 1630 to 1856 (Boston: F.C. Moore & Company, 1856), 153–9.

66.Illustrated Mail-Extra, 3, and Celebration of the Introduction of Water, 13–14.

67. Tappan and Russell, Celebration Hymns.

68.Celebration of the Introduction of Water, 10–11.

69.Report of the Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Embracing the Account of Its Operations and Inquiries from August 2, 1869, to March 1, 1870, Inclusive (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1870), 176.

70.Celebration of the Introduction of Water, 40–1.

71. Peleg W. Chandler, Esq., City Solicitor’s Opinion Upon the Right to Give the Water to the Children’s Friend Society, City Document No. 13 (Boston: 1850). As late as 1856, the City Council appointed a committee to investigate the possibility of making water free. The committee reported unfavorably on the proposal, however, and the issue disappeared. See Bradlee, History, 175.

72. Eliot, Soft Water, 3.

73. Roger Lane, Policing the City: Boston, 1822–1885 (1967; reprint, New York: Atheneum, 1975), 70.

74. For recent media coverage, see Dan Chapman, “Turning Water into Gold,” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 22 January 2003, 1F, and John Tagliabue, “As Multinationals Run the Taps, Anger Rises Over Water for Profit,” The New York Times, 26 August 2002, 1, A7. Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, who serve on the board of the International Forum on Globalization, have emerged as prominent opponents of privatization. See Barlow and Clarke, “Who Owns Water,” The Nation, 2 September 2002, 11–14, and Barlow and Clarke, Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New York: New Press, 2002). For perspectives supporting the commodification of water, see Shawn Tully, “Water, Water Everywhere,” in Fortune, 15 May 2000, 55, and the Water Industry News at

75. For water as “a gift from God,” see Tagliabue, “As Multinationals Run the Taps”; and for water belonging “to the earth and all species for all time,” see Public Citizen, “Water is Life: A Civil Society World Water Vision for Action,” 2003, cmep/Water/conferences/articles.cfm?ID=9129 , accessed 14 June 2004.