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


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

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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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Editorial Reviews

Michael Rawson

"A fascinating history of the ideas about nature, health, citizenship, and time that informed the construction of some of America’s earliest and greatest water systems. By demonstrating that our urban aqueducts are built out of ideas as much as bricks and mortar, Carl Smith ensures that a simple glass of water will never seem so simple again."
Harold Platt

City Water, City Life is a gem of a book, a tightly focused meditation on the antebellum city's ‘infrastructure of ideas.’ By masterfully compressing myriad period sources, Carl Smith makes major contributions to our understanding of American society and culture.”
Cecelia Tichi

“A crucially important new chapter in US urban history. With impeccable research, Carl Smith seamlessly synthesizes nineteenth-century issues of politics, engineering, finance, aesthetics, law, and medicine—all focused on the creation of water systems in three major cities and all coalescing around the idea of the greater good of the public at large. City Water, City Life speaks from history to this contemporary moment when the United States confronts, yet again, the debate over public versus private control of its water.”
Joel A. Tarr

“A wonderfully perceptive book that provides new insights into the development and implications of water supply in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Readers will find especially valuable Carl Smith’s use of cultural, environmental, and health-related frames to construct an ‘infrastructure of ideas’ relating to water.”
Martin V. Melosi

“What a nuanced treatment of water! In City Water, City Life, Carl Smith breathes new life into our understanding of the impact of water supply through his study of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. While we know a great deal about the systems themselves and how they were developed, Smith focuses on transcendent qualities of water befitting its central role in our lives. As such, he has expanded the audience who will derive a great deal of satisfaction from this study.”

"A well-researched, engaging read. . . . Recommended."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"This collective examination of three cities allows for a broader understanding of the meanings that American city-dwellers attached to their aqueducts, pipes, pumps, and faucets, and the water that these public works delivered."
American Historical Review

“Smith has made an important contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century urban America by uncovering the cultural foundations of one of our most vital infrastructure networks.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226151595
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 344
  • Sales rank: 566,635
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Carl Smith is the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies and professor of history at Northwestern University. His books include three prize-winning volumes: Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920; Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman; and The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City.
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Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago



Copyright © 2013 Carl Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02251-2




City Water, City Life

Water and meditation are wedded for ever. —HERMAN MELVILLE, Moby-Dick

Water is all things to all people. It is a universal necessity, whether for drinking, cooking, sanitation, transportation, manufacturing, or fighting fire. It is the primary component of the human body and of the earth's surface, so that life is inconceivable without it. Water is a bearer of aesthetic, symbolic, and sacramental meaning in every culture, central to so many rites, from baptism of newborns to cleansing of the dead. Water imagery is omnipresent in all forms of expression, suggesting an intimacy between the flow of water and that of language, music, and drawing, not to mention consciousness, which was famously described by William James as a "stream." Water is the locus and principle of experience itself, with all its uncertainties and contingencies, the "tide in the affairs of men" that abandons Shakespeare's Brutus on the shore of defeat, the infidelity Othello misperceives in Desdemona when he accuses her of being "false as water." Water is, indeed, a bottomless well of metaphors. Individual existence has frequently been likened to a journey along a river, social and economic life to flows of people, goods, money, and information. In Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), water is the medium of Ishmael's multi-level journey, in the course of which he discovers endlessly reverberating correspondences between matter and mind. Water is always irreducibly figurative and inescapably literal, constructed and real, fabulous and mundane, and profoundly cultural.

City Water, City Life is a meditation on how Americans living in leading cities meditated on water in the formative period of this country's great age of urbanization. While I focus on the establishment of water-supply systems in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, which took place serially between the 1790s and the 1860s, this is neither a technological nor an environmental history as such. It is, rather, an intellectual and cultural study whose broadest purpose is to analyze how people thought and spoke about urbanization as they participated in it. It is based on two premises: that cities are built out of ideas as much as they are of timber, bricks, and stone, and that the discussion of city water is a kind of a universal solvent that reveals this in striking ways. "The mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other," Emerson declared in "The American Scholar" (1837). In urbanizing America, certain ways of thinking about water, the words and actions through which these ways of thinking were expressed, and the physical environment of the city mutually conditioned and constituted one another.

The City as an Infrastructure of Ideas

In the pages that follow, I argue that a city is as much an infrastructure of ideas as it is a gathering of people, a layout of streets, an arrangement of buildings, or a collection of political, economic, and social institutions. The infrastructure of ideas neither precedes nor follows the building of a physical and social infrastructure, but is inseparable from them. An urban reservoir or pumping station is a work of hydraulic engineering, but in its design and the way it is managed it also expresses the beliefs, values, and aspirations of the city that created it. It negotiates not only practical matters of physics and thirst, finance and health, but also philosophical questions of secular and sacred, real and ideal, immanent and transcendent.

Between 1790 and 1870, the United States shifted irreversibly from an overwhelmingly rural to an increasingly urban society. In 1790 only 5 cities in the new nation had a population of 10,000 or more. This jumped to 23 by 1830 and then to 63 by 1850 and 168 by 1870. Between 1830 and 1870, when the momentum of urbanization became unmistakable, the number of places with at least 25,000 people went from 7 to 52, and the percentage of the population classified as urban climbed from 8.8 to 25.7 percent (it would tip past 50 percent by 1920). In 1830 the United States could boast of only one city, New York, with 100,000 residents or more. By 1870 there were 14. Philadelphia's population went from 28,522 in 1790 to 674,022 in 1870 (when it was the country's second largest city, after New York), Boston's from 18,320 to 250,526 (seventh), and Chicago's from a smattering of people to 298,977 (fifth—it would be second by 1890).

The question of how these and other cities would obtain their water became more and more urgent as they grew. A history of Philadelphia's water system prepared in 1860 by the city's department of water observed, "The water supply to a great city is necessarily one of the most important and interesting features, upon which depends, to a greater extent, possibly, than any of its other advantages, either natural or artificial, its ultimate growth and prosperity." As in other times and places, ambitious nineteenth-century cities in the United States legitimized themselves as vital and commanding by their ability to control water on a heroic scale.

Those who lived in these cities certainly conceptualized what they were doing in abstract terms as they confronted the more concrete dimensions of their water needs and of city life in general. As city dwellers worked out their multi-faceted physical relationship with water, they came to terms as well with timeless questions of what is the best conception of how to live, how to realize that conception, and how possibility and actuality determine one another. As the water histories of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago indicate, those who lived in these cities frequently considered the deeper implications of what they were saying and doing as they dealt with their need for water. The construction of waterworks and of the infrastructure of ideas they embodied did not develop smoothly, in a single direction, with sharp finality, or with anything approaching unanimity, even if virtually all city people accepted and internalized, however uncertainly, the process of urbanization. A crucial component of this process was the fashioning of a dynamic and conflicted imaginative as well as physical place.

Four Questions, Three Cities

After presenting an overview of the histories of the building of the early waterworks systems in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, I explore four broad and overlapping sets of questions posed by urbanizing America's meditation on water.

1. How did people living in these cities understand citizenship at a time of unprecedented urban growth and change?

City dwellers recognized themselves as participants in a complex society at the moment when they realized that the quantity of water from the local well, stream, or pump no longer met their personal needs and commercial demands; that the quality of water at hand was jeopardized by privies, cesspools, and industry; and that a fire or fever that broke out even many blocks away might quickly spread, threatening their own lives and livelihoods. The need for a large, dependable, and accessible supply of clean water raised multiple concerns about individual and collective priorities. To build and manage a system that could provide this water required the expansion of heretofore limited city government and an accompanying large increase in the municipal budget. The imperatives of water brought to the fore conflicting ideas of the public good, including disagreements over what resources should be provided, and by whom, to that elusive entity, "the people," in a burgeoning capitalist democracy whose members were fiercely devoted to freedom of individual action and increasingly divided politically, even as they became more dependent upon one another.

2. How did urban Americans conceptualize the cityscape they were building and inhabiting in relation to the natural world it was displacing?

City water blurred the line between nature and the built environment. Throughout the nineteenth century, cities expended enormous effort and resources to dredge, dam, drain, and redirect nearby and distant rivers and lakes, creating artificial replacements in the form of aqueducts and reservoirs. Water is, of course, a naturally occurring compound, but waterworks systems denaturalized it into an apparently manufactured commodity that was sold, delivered, used, and discarded. To be reliant on a network of water pipes defined more viscerally than did walking or riding through streets the condition of being "on the grid," that is, within a human-made world separate from nature. Given how radical the shift was from fetching water from a natural source to taking it from a tap, it is remarkable how quickly city people came to view the new state of things as normal and, for lack of a better word, natural.

Meanwhile, the American nation's presumed identification with nature, as well as a timeless concern with the dehumanizing tendencies of urban life, drove efforts to protect or restore the presence of the natural world in the city, even if that presence was nearly as fabricated as the grid. Accompanying the general transformation of the landscape into the cityscape was the reconstruction of nature in aqueducts and reservoirs, and, more programmatically, in gardens and parks that contained artificial ponds, streams, lakes, lagoons, and fountains. All of these were intended to revitalize the urban citizen and public life.

3. How did people living in these three cities perceive the relationship between their physical well-being and that of the city?

To go on the urban water grid was to connect one's human body to that of the so-called body of the city. The close connection between the healthy individual and the healthy city was irrefutable at those harrowing moments when an epidemic or pollution of the drinking source convinced city people that they must build a new or improved waterworks. The water metaphors employed in engineering reports, public speeches, booster rhetoric, and cultural commentary imagined the city as a living human body that corresponded to the bodies of those that inhabited it. At the same time, those with strong class and ethnic prejudices viewed some portions of the population—most often the poor and the foreign-born, as well as the diseased—as dirty bodies that required sanitizing. The bathing, temperance, and water-cure movements looked to new water works as part of the battle to cleanse, control, and heal the individual body, both for its own sake and for that of a well-regulated and righteous social body. While depending on city water meant tethering oneself to the urban collective, however, those who could afford indoor plumbing or take the water cure attempted to protect themselves from contamination by isolating themselves from the urban body.

4. Where did city people locate contemporary city life in the flow of time and history?

The transformations that accompanied sudden urbanization caused city people to contemplate their place in history. When officials calculated the optimum capacity of a waterworks, they believed they were determining their city's destiny. But building a large and expensive water works also raised the sensitive subject of urban debt. The need to construct capital-intensive waterworks that would supposedly foster a glorious future meant the assumption of indebtedness on a scale previously unimagined. While many citizens argued that the present had no right to encumber the future with such financial obligations, proponents of new systems spoke of a willingness to incur water debt as a civic duty. Imagining the urban prospect in terms of water was also in some respects a retrospective act. This was true especially when it entailed framing the present in terms of the storied civilizations (and waterworks) of an earlier age, often classical Rome, even when this framing derived from an exceptionalist outlook that wished to see American urban life as following an ever-upward trajectory that distinguished one's own city from other great metropolises of the past that had long since gone into decline.

While City Water, City Life examines Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago throughout the period it covers, it focuses on each of them mainly in the years when it built its first successful water system: Philadelphia between the 1790s and the early 1820s, Boston from the mid-1820s to about 1850, Chicago starting in the 1840s and ending around 1870. A "successful" waterworks is defined as one that by broad agreement has met the technological challenge of delivering water of acceptable quantity and quality and that offers a reasonable expectation of financial sustainability. Even before each city had a successful system up and running, its leaders realized that more work and expense than they had anticipated lay ahead, and that meeting a large city's water needs was always a work-in-progress that would never be finally done.

The three cities discussed here were chosen because of both their differences and their similarities. The early water histories of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago have their distinctive particulars, so examining them together provides more range and variety than would an account of a single city. These histories involve not only different settings, populations, and cultural moments, but also three different kinds of water sources—a river (Philadelphia), an aqueduct (Boston), and a lake (Chicago). Still, there are enough resemblances among the three individual stories that they combine into one narrative, and by the end of the period covered here the three systems were in many important respects more like each other than they were like themselves at an earlier stage. This is because while Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago were in the process of developing their waterworks, they studied and shared expertise with other growing urban industrial centers of the United States and western Europe. With this in mind, I occasionally refer to contemporary events in these other cities, especially New York's much-examined water history.

Sources and Voices

City Water, City Life concentrates on the public discussion of the two terms in its title. It examines mainly print sources, including surveys prepared by engineers and health officials, statements and reports by legislative committees and departments of water and public works, public addresses that were subsequently published, newspapers, periodicals, and a wide variety of writing that ranges from advice manuals to poetry. This study also analyzes paintings and prints, sculpture, and, of course, the built environment of the city, notably the components of waterworks systems, as well as the many ceremonies and celebrations mounted at all stages of the construction process.

These sources expressed the ideas mainly of a small elite. The justification for concentrating on such voices rests precisely on their status. The people heard here dominated discussions of city water, and they did so by dint of their wealth, expertise, and positions of power, responsibility, and influence. They were almost exclusively men, and, whether they were born in this country or abroad, they were overwhelmingly of northern and western European Protestant background. They were engaged with issues that mattered to everyone, however, and their major proposals often required the endorsement of voters (albeit the electorate was exclusively male). And they were hardly a monolithic group in their political and social outlooks. They included Federalists, Democrats of the period's several evolving types, Whigs, Republicans, and members of other parties and interest groups. They strongly differed in their opinions on the proper direction of urban society. The only thing on which they agreed was that, like it or not, city life was changing constantly and would continue to do so. They worked to control this change as they thought best by having their ideas integrated into the infrastructure of the city they were building, so that the tasks of managing water and containing the fluidity of urban experience were closely related.

The different ideas through which people framed their understanding of city water revealed the period's shifting mix of beliefs. Among these beliefs were an evangelical Protestantism divided in its view of human capability but united in its emphasis on the importance of the moral implications of human action; a post-Enlightenment rationalism that championed the accumulation, organization, and application of secular knowledge and expertise, frequently through the evolving disciplines of engineering, public health, and statistics; a political outlook whose enthusiasm for democracy was often qualified by a sense, whether based on class and ethnic prejudice or sympathetic observation (or both), that large portions of the population were unable to look after their own best interests, let alone those of the city as a whole; an aggressively entrepreneurial spirit and unapologetically materialistic drive; and a devotion to fine feeling, in modes ranging from sentimentality to metaphysics. A particular person might see city life through more than one intellectual, aesthetic, or philosophical framework, even if this led to contradictions.

The history of city water, like all of city life, entailed a ceaseless interplay between human beings and the urban worlds they were building. I generally neither applaud nor criticize the people studied here for what they did or did not say, do, and achieve. I usually give them the benefit of the doubt in assuming that they thought they were acting for the best of others as well as themselves. But it should come as no surprise that the ideas they expressed sometimes revealed bigotry and self-interest, as well as open-mindedness and altruism.

Without suspending hindsight entirely, my analysis thus largely avoids retrospective evaluations, either to praise innovative techniques and progressive social ideas or to condemn mistakes attributable to ignorance of discoveries that would come later or narrowness of thinking that was characteristic of the time. In the period this book covers, for example, though the problems presented by pollution were evident, few paid sufficient attention to sewerage or waste management, and the development and acceptance of the germ theory lay in the future. I try to see city life as it was happening through the eyes of the people whose views and actions I examine, as they attempted to figure out what to do and think about the world they were making as they were making it.

Excerpted from CITY WATER, CITY LIFE by CARL SMITH. Copyright © 2013 by Carl Smith. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Introduction: City Water, City Life
2 The River, the Aqueduct, and the Lake: Bringing Water to Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago
3 The Individual and the Collective: Water, Urban Society, and the Public Good
4 Nature and Art: Water and the Reconciliation of the Natural and the Urban
5 The Urban Body and the Body of the City: The Sanitary Movement, the Temperance Crusade, and the Water Cure
6 The Flow of Time
7 Epilogue


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