City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago

City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago

Language: English

Pages: 344

ISBN: 022615159X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


A city is more than a massing of citizens, a layout of buildings and streets, or an arrangement of political, economic, and social institutions. It is also an infrastructure of ideas that are a support for the beliefs, values, and aspirations of the people who created the city. In City Water, City Life, celebrated historian Carl Smith explores this concept through an insightful examination of the development of the first successful waterworks systems in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago between the 1790s and the 1860s. By examining the place of water in the nineteenth-century consciousness, Smith illuminates how city dwellers perceived themselves during the great age of American urbanization. But City Water, City Life is more than a history of urbanization. It is also a refreshing meditation on water as a necessity, as a resource for commerce and industry, and as an essential—and central—part of how we define our civilization.

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was of sufficient elevation so that gravity alone, with no assistance from costly and trouble-prone steam engines, would be all that was required to drive the water. In November 1812, another letter from “A Citizen” posed an entirely The River, the Aqueduct, and the Lake 23 new alternative, one that he claimed would furnish Philadelphia “any quantity of the purest quality, and in the easiest manner; and at a comparatively moderate expense.” He expressed astonishment that Philadelphia’s

was to men’s. Perhaps even more so, given that the onus of housework, including the management of domestic water, fell on them. One wag composed a poem about the dismay and frustration that women felt because they were being inundated with publications advocating one source or another at the same time that they lacked water in which to wash their children’s soiled clothes: Their houses are deluged with pamphlets untold, Of green, blue and gray, such a tale to unfold! Of Shakum, and Mystic,

expansion had led directly to the creation of the public company that would displace the valiant private one. The reward for unselfishly advancing the public good was public ingratitude. In spite of this insult and injury, the Chicago Hydraulic Company’s owners were willing to “retire out of the way,” though simple fairness demanded that they receive a very modest payment: “our capital expended, without interest, i.e., the bare cost of our works.” If Chicago offered anything less, they said, it

cost of the work,” but it also admitted that it decided to put pipes “only where there would be a sufficient income to pay the interest on its cost when laid.” The board reaffirmed this policy in its 1870 report, though it added that installing mains at a slight loss in certain areas was a good idea, since “experience shows that the laying of the pipes is speedily followed by the erection of new buildings and such streets soon become self-supporting.” Urban expansion would go where water led, to

to how city people desired to exert imaginative as well as physical control over the general daily disorder of urban experience. With this in mind, I planned to write a book about the literal and figurative dimensions of fire and water in nineteenth-century American city life. I soon realized that anxieties about incendiaries of all sorts in highly volatile Chicago deserved a volume of its own, and that water would have to wait. Several other projects and duties, not to mention the decision to deal

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