III.12. - Water
ingestion of water in some form is widely recognized as essential
for human life. But we usually do not consider water as food because
it does not contain any of those substances we regard as nutriments.
Yet if its status as a foodstuff remains ambiguous, it is far
less so than it has been through much of human history. Water
(or more properly "waters," for it is only in the last
two centuries that it can really have been viewed as a singular
substance) has been considered as food, a solvent for food, a
pharmaceutical substance, a lethal substance, a characteristic
physiological state, and a spiritual or quasi-spiritual entity.
chapter raises questions about what sort of substance water has
been conceived to be and what nutritional role it has been held
to have. Moreover it also explores what we know of the history
of the kinds of waters that were viewed as suitable to drink
with regard to their origins, the means used to determine their
potability, and their preparation or purification. It also has
a little to say about historical knowledge of drinking-water habits
(i.e., how much water did people drink at different times and
situations?) and water consumption as a means of disease transmission.
notions of water as a compound chemical substance more or less
laden with dissolved or suspended minerals, gases, microorganisms,
or organic detritus have been held at best for only the last two
centuries. Even earlier ideas of water as one of the four (or
five) elements will mislead us, for in many such schemes elements
were less fundamental substances than dynamic principles (e.g.,
in the case of water, the dynamic tendency is to wet things, cool
them, and dissolve them) or generic labels for regular combinations
of qualities. In one strand of Aristotelianism, for example, water
can be understood as matter possessing the qualities of being
cold and wet; thus whenever one finds those characteristics, one
is coming across something more or less watery. It may even be
inappropriate to think of water as wholly a natural substance;
as we shall see, springs and wells (if not necessarily the water
from them) often held sacred status. The primacy of water in the
symbolism of many of the worlds religions as a medium of
dissolution and rebirth invites us to recognize water as numinous
in a way that most other foodstuffs are not (Eliade 1958; Bachelard
the very least, it is clear that through much of Western history
"water" referred to a class of substances. "Waters"
varied enormously both in terms of origin (rainfall, snowmelt,
dew, and pond, spring, and river water were seen to be significantly
different) and from place to place, just as climate and other
geographical characteristics vegetation, soil, topography
vary. Whereas for most of us the modern taxonomy of water
quality includes only two classes (pure and impure), in the past
subtle and complicated characterizations were nearly universal,
especially with regard to water from springs, a matter that fascinated
many writers. Indeed, the uniqueness of a water is a key attribute
of place, and waters are linked to places in much the same way
in which we now associate the characteristics of wines with their
places of origin. This idea is evident in the title of the famous
Hippocratic treatise "On Airs, Waters, and Places";
it is a central theme in the treatments of post-Hippocratic classical
authors like Pliny the Elder and Marcus Pollio Vitruvius, and
much the same sensibility seems apparent in Celtic, Teutonic,
and Chinese perspectives.
varied from place to place in many ways, but one can generalize
about the kinds of qualities that interested classical authors.
Many did mention taste, and they usually held that the less taste
the water had, the better. Taste, in turn, was associated with
a host of other qualities that linked the immediate sensory experience
of drinking a water with the effects of its continued consumption
on health and constitution. Other key factors were coldness, lightness,
did not necessarily refer to temperature, which in any case could
not be measured except subjectively and indirectly. In Chinese
cosmology coldness and hotness were part of the universal system
of polarities, applied to foodstuffs as well as to many other
substances and activities. Water was by definition cool; steeping
or cooking things in it (even boiling them) was accordingly a
cooling process (Simoons 1991: 24). For the mechanical philosophers
of early eighteenth-century Europe, "cold" and "hot"
had become terms of chemical composition: Sulfurous water was
"hot," that containing niter or alum was "cold"
appears usually as a subjective quality akin to ease of digestibility.
Pliny, in an unusual outburst of skepticism, observed that unfortunately
"this lightness of water can be discovered with difficulty
except by sensation, as the kinds of water differ practically
nothing in weight" (Pliny 1963: book 31, chap. 21). But occasionally
lightness was a parameter that could be objectively measured:
Equal areas of tissue were wetted in different waters and their
weights compared to determine which water was the lighter, and
hence the better to drink (Lorcin 1985: 262).
general, desirable or undesirable properties were associated with
the source of the water one obtained, and there was general agreement
on the ranking of these sources. Rainwater was usually held to
be the best water even though it was also regarded as the quickest
to become putrid (though this in itself was not problematic, since
the water might still be used after it had finished putrefying).
Though some wealthy Romans made much of its virtues, water from
melted snow or ice was generally viewed as harmful, possibly because
it was associated with goiter, but more likely because, being
deaerated, it tasted flat and led to a heaviness in the stomach
(Burton 1868: 241; Vitruvius 1960: 239; Pliny 1963: book 31, chap.
21; Diderot and DAlembert 1969; Soyer 1977: 296; Simoons
deemed water from mountain streams (particularly on north-facing
slopes) better than water from wells or streams in hot plains
because it was held that the heat of the sun was likely to drive
off the lighter or best parts of the waters (though Burton, summarizing
classical authors, insisted that waters from tropical places were
"frequently purer than ours in the north, more subtile [sic],
thin, and lighter" [Burton 1868: 241]). Running waters were
to be preferred to stagnant waters; waters stored in cisterns
were undesirable because they accumulated "slime or disgusting
insects" (Pliny 1963: book 31, chap. 21). But none of these
generalizations obviated the need to characterize each individual
source of water because, as Pliny noted, "the taste of rivers
is usually variable, owing to the great difference in river beds.
For waters vary with the land over which they flow and with the
juices of the plants they wash" (1963: book 31, chap. 32).
descriptions clearly indicate that classical authors were much
concerned with the effects of waters on health. One can understand
their views in terms of a four-part scheme for classifying waters.
Some waters are seen as positively beneficial to health, medicaments
to be taken to cure various maladies. Others are viewed as good,
"sweet" (the term has long been used to describe waters)
waters, of acceptable taste and suitable for dietetic use. Still
others are regarded as having undesirable qualities as a beverage.
Accordingly, they are to be used sparingly, only after treatment,
or with compensatory foodstuffs. Finally, authors recognize some
waters as pathogenic in some sense, even lethal.
taste and health effects, waters (particularly spring waters)
were characterized in terms of a host of bizarre properties they
were believed to have. Pliny tells us (as does Vitruvius) of springs
that turn black-wooled sheep into white-wooled sheep, that cause
women to conceive, that endow those who drink of them with beautiful
singing voices, that petrify whatever is dipped into them, that
inebriate those who drink from them or, alternatively, make those
who drink of them abstemious (Pliny 1963: book 31, chaps. 317).
To this one might add the Levitical "bitter waters of jealousy,"
which possessed the property of identifying adulteresses.
authors were explicit in attributing the properties of springs
to a concept of chemical admixture: The water had the properties
it had owing to what had happened to it, such as the kinds of
mineral substances it had encountered underground. Yet the earth
was seen as in some sense alive, and we would accordingly be unwarranted
in assuming that a modern concept of solution is implied (Eliade
1978). Waters were earths vital fluids. The Roman architect
Vitruvius noted, for example:
human body, which consists in part of the earthy, contains many
kinds of juices, such as blood, milk, sweat, urine, and tears.
If all this variation of flavors is found in a small portion of
the earthy, we should not be surprised to find in the great earth
itself countless varieties of juices, through the veins of which
the water runs, and becomes saturated with them before reaching
the outlets of springs. In this way, different varieties of springs
or peculiar kinds are produced, on account of diversity of situation,
characteristics of country, and dissimilar properties of soils."
(Vitruvius 1960: 2412)
is probably right to see this linkage of macrocosm and microcosm
as something more than analogical; such linkages would remain
a part of popular understanding even after the rise of a mechanistic
cosmology in the seventeenth century.
properties of waters might also be understood as manifesting the
spirits or resident divinities of springs, because many springs
and rivers were thought of as home to (or the embodiment of) a
divinity. Such views were held in many premodern cultures, although
perhaps best known are the 30,000 nymphs associated by Hesiod
with springs in Greece (their brothers were the rivers) (Hesiod
1953: 33782; Moser 1990; Tölle-Kastenbein 1990). In
many, particularly rural, places in France, Britain, Germany,
and elsewhere, worship of such divinities persisted well into
Christian, and even into modern times. Periodic efforts of the
medieval Roman Catholic church to halt such worship usually failed
and, in fact, led to the association of wells and springs as sites
of miracles linked with particular saints (Hope 1893; Hofmann-Krayer
and Bachtold-Stäubli 1927; Vaillat 1932; Guitard 1951; Bord
and Bord 1986; Guillerme 1988).
water cults were restricted to specific springs, it becomes difficult
to deal with questions of why springs were worshiped and what
the rituals of worship signified. R. A. Wild has argued that the
Nile-worshiping cult of Isis and Sarapis (important and widely
distributed during the early Roman empire) simply understood Nile
water as the most perfect water; it was associated with fecundity,
for humans as well as for crops, and was known as a fattening
water (Wild 1981). One may speculate that in a similar sense the
worship of the local water source symbolized and represented the
dependence of a community on that water. Mineral springs may also
have come to be worshiped for their health-giving properties;
equally, a springs reputation as sacred was an asset to
a local economy and made clear to local residents that their locality
had a privileged cosmic status (Hamlin 1990a; Harley 1990).
because it possessed such a broad range of significant and powerful
properties, was thus to be used with care in a diet. In the tradition
of the Hippocratic writers, authors of medical treatises on regimen
had much to say about the conditions of waters and about the circumstances
in which water was to be drunk. We should first note that most
authors were unenthusiastic about the drinking of water. However
much it might seem the natural drink of the animal kingdom, it
was also viewed as having a remarkable power to disturb the stability
of the human constitution. Summing up the views of classical antiquity
on water as beverage, the nineteenth-century chef Alexis Soyer
wrote, "water is certainly the most ancient beverage, the
most simple, natural, and the most common, which nature has given
to mankind. But it is necessary to be really thirsty in order
to drink water, and as soon as this craving is satisfied it becomes
insipid and nauseous" (Soyer 1977: 299).
principal later medieval medical text, Avicennas Canon
of Medicine, for example, advised one not to drink water with
a meal, but only at the meals end, and then in small quantities.
Water taken later, during digestion, would interrupt that process.
One was also not to drink water while fasting, or after bathing,
sex, or exercise. Nor should one give in to night thirst. To do
so would disrupt digestion and would not quench the thirst for
long. For Avicenna, a waters temperature was also a crucial
determinant of its physiological effect. Too much cold water was
harmful, whereas "tepid water evokes nausea." Warm water
acted as a purgative; yet too much of it weakened the stomach
(Gruner 1930: 228, 401, 4078; Lorcin 1985). The effects
of habitually imbibing certain waters could be cumulative. The
Hippocratic text "On Airs, Waters, and Places," for
example, held that cold waters had a detrimental effect on womens
constitutions: Menstruation was impaired and made painful; breast
feeding was inhibited (Hippocrates 1939: 22).
a sensitivity to the careful use of water within the diet is also
evident in premodern Chinese writings on diet. There, too, one
finds recognition of an extraordinary range of properties possessed
by different waters (drips from stalactites were seen to enhance
longevity) and, accordingly, great interest in classifying sources
of water. In China, the preference was for warm (or boiled) water,
possibly, though not necessarily, in which vegetable substances
had been steeped (i.e., tea). Cold water was deemed to damage
the intestines (Mote 1977: 22930; Simoons 1991: 24, 441,
modes of pathological explanation changed over the centuries,
concern with the role of waters in regimens remained important
up to the mid-nineteenth century and the onset of a medicine more
oriented to specific diseases. The Enlightenment authors of the
Encyclopédie proposed to determine, through a sort
of clinical trial, the full physiological effects of water, but
they noted that such a project was impossible because one could
not do without water (in some form): One could detect only the
differential effects of water and other drinks. (They were particularly
interested in the claim that water drinking enhanced male sexual
performance ["très vigoureux"]; they thought
it probable that such tales reflected only the incapacitative
effects of alcoholic drink, not the positive effects of water
[Diderot and DAlembert 1969: entry on "eau commune"]).
Late-eighteenth-century British medical men were still stressing
the emetic and diluent properties of water. Much food with much
water could provoke corpulency; too much water with too little
food could promote a diet deficient in nutrients, since food would
move too quickly through the digestive tract. For some foods,
water was not a sufficient solvent; successful digestion of meats,
for example, required fermented beverages (though the alcohol
in such beverages was seen as a dangerous side effect). Care was
to be taken in quenching thirst, which might not simply signal
too little internal moisture but instead indicate too much food
or the wrong kinds of food (Encyclopedia Britannica 1797:
entry on "drink"; Rees Cyclopedia 1819: entry
antiquity, as in the eighteenth century, the wise physician recognized
that general rules like those just mentioned might need modification:
One modified them according to a sophisticated explanation of
the particular nutritive and other functions of water within the
body (further adapted in accord with the constitution and condition
of the individual who was to drink it), according to a knowledge
of the particular water and the modes of preparation it had undergone.
Within the body, water was understood to have a number of effects,
both gastronomic and pharmaceutical, but as M. T. Lorcin has noted,
in such regimen literature this distinction is inappropriate;
health consists of the proper cultivation of the constitution;
all ingesta contributed to this (Lorcin 1985: 268).
chief medical functions of water were as a diluent of food and
as a coolant. It acted also as a solvent of food, as an initiator
of digestive and other transformations, and as a tonic (a substance
that strengthened or gave tone to ones stomach and/or other
fibers). It was seen also as a mild purgative (Chambers 1741).
augment some of the functions just mentioned and retard others,
waters might be treated or purified. Some of the harmful qualities
of water were understood to be susceptible to neutralization or
purification. Avicenna recommended boiling as a good means of
purification; he held that the mineral residue left behind contained
the congealed "coldness" that was the impurity (Gruner
1930: 223). Water might also be made to pass from a container,
by capillary action, along a wick of fleece; the drops falling
from the end would be assumed to have been purified. Harmful qualities
could also be removed by addition of vinegar or wine or by soaking
in the water some substance, such as pearl barley, onions, or
wax, which would absorb or counteract injurious matters.
might also shake a suspect water with sand (a technique remarkably
similar to that used by Edward Buchner to obtain bacteria-free
water for the experiments that led to the concept of the enzyme).
Finally, classical and medieval authors recognized the value of
filtration, whether a natural filtration through soil, or an artificial
filtration through wool, bread crumbs, or cloth ("in order
to make sure there are no leeches or other creatures in it")
(Gruner 1930: 222, 4545; Baker 1948: 18; Lorcin 1985:
263). The great potency of water for good and ill, along with
its considerable variability from place to place, made it crucial
for travelers to be especially careful of the waters they drank:
"The traveller is more exposed to illness from the diversity
of drinking water than he is from the diversity of foods. . . .
it is necessary to be particular about correcting the bad qualities
of the drinking water, and expend every effort in purifying it"
(Gruner 1930: 454).
long before there was a clear concept of waterborne disease, there
was great deal of appreciation, shared by cultures in many parts
of the world, of the various characters of waters and of their
manifold effects on health. How assiduously people followed hygienic
advice about which waters to drink and how to prepare them, and
how far following such advice would have been adequate to prevent
waterborne diseases is not clear, but it is clear that in cases
where public waterworks existed, such as the aqueducts that supplied
Rome, those in charge of their administration were supposed to
be concerned, in part, with quality. It seems evident that humans
have been subject to waterborne diseases throughout recorded history,
and, thus, it is remarkable that there is little mention of epidemics
(or even cases) of waterborne diseases prior to the nineteenth
century (but see Ackerknecht 1965: 24, 412, 47, 1346;
Janssens 1983; Jannetta 1987: 1489; Grmek 1989: 156,
might attribute this lack of waterborne epidemics to relatively
low population density or a magnitude of travel that was usually
too low to sustain outbreaks of diseases caused by relatively
fragile bacteria. In this connection, it is notable that many
of the records do deal with diseases that we might now attribute
to the hardier parasites. Yet it is surely also the case that
a population, aware of the dangers of water and possessing an
impressive armamentarium of techniques for improving that water,
did much to prevent waterborne disease outbreaks. Even if one
does not see the Chinese preference for warmed (ideally boiled)
water as representing hygienic consciousness, it surely was beneficial
in relatively heavily populated areas where paddy cultivation,
with night soil as fertilizer, was customarily practiced (but
see Needham: 1970). In other cases, as in the addition of wine
to water in early modern France, the action was explicitly a purification,
with greater or lesser amounts of wine added according to the
estimated degree of impurity of the water (Roche 1984).
clearly for Pliny, but also for many classical, medieval, and
early modern authors, "waters" were "marvels,"
each unique, whether owing to the mix of natural agency to which
it had been exposed or to its intrinsically marvelous character
(Pliny 1963: book 31, chap. 18). By the seventeenth century, European
writers on waters had come to emphasize a binary classification:
Water was either common (more or less potable) water or mineral
water. "Mineral waters" was the collective term for
the remarkable springs Pliny had described. Less and less did
they represent the mark of the "hand of providence"
on a particular locale; increasingly their properties were understood
in terms of the salts or gases dissolved in them (Brockliss 1990;
Hamlin 1990a, 1990b; Harley 1990; Palmer 1990).
from being unique, any mineral spring could be understood as belonging
to one of a few general types. These included chalybeate, or iron-bearing
waters, drunk to treat anemia; sulfurous waters, good for skin
problems; acidulous waters, full of carbonic and other acids that
gave the stomach a lightness; and saline waters, which served
usually as purgatives. A good many springs, with a wide variety
of constituents (and a few with no unusual chemical constituents
at all), were also held to be cures for infertility and other
diseases of women (Cayleff 1987).
varied in temperature, which might or might not be significant.
That waters in some springs were to be bathed in and that waters
from others were to be taken internally was a less formidable
distinction than it seems to us now. Bathing was not simply a
treatment of the skin; the water (or its essential qualities)
was understood to be able to enter the body through the skin or
to be able to cause significant internal effect in some other
way. Some therapeutic regimens, such as hydropathy, popular among
educated Americans and Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century,
integrated a wide variety of external and internal applications
of water to produce improvements in health, which clients (like
Charles Darwin) regarded as dramatic indeed (Donegan 1986; Cayleff
1987; Vigarello 1988; Brockliss 1990; Browne 1990).
characterization of springs in terms of chemical constituents
was not so much a consequence of the maturation of chemical science
as one of the sources of that maturation. Such characterizations
were necessary for the proprietors of mineral springs to compete
in a medical marketplace. People from the rising middle classes,
who increasingly patronized mineral waters, were no more willing
to trust in miracles in taking the waters than in any other aspect
of business. Every spring had its testimonials, miracles, and
claims of excellent accommodations and exalted society for its
visitors. Thus, the chemical composition of a spring seemed the
only reliable means to make a decision on whether one might patronize
a lesser-known resort nearby or whether one undertook a lengthy
journey (Guitard 1951; Hamlin 1990b; but see Brockliss 1990).
Chemistry also provided a means of bringing the spa to the patient
through medicinal waters, which could be bottled for widespread
distribution (Kirkby 1902; Coley 1984). Following the discovery
of the means to manufacture carbonated water by Joseph Priestly
and Torbern Bergman, such enterprise gave rise to the soft-drink
industry (Boklund 1956).
effect, of course, of making water part of the domain of chemistry
was to reduce "waters" to a mixture of a simple substrate,
"water" (whose composition as a compound of hydrogen
and oxygen had been recognized by the end of the eighteenth century)
with various amounts of other chemical substances. This conceptual
transformation was not achieved without resistance, particularly
from physicians (often with practices associated with particular
springs), who saw their art threatened by the reductionism of
chemistry and continued to maintain that each spring had a peculiar
"life" that no chemist could imitate and whose benefits
could only be obtained if its waters were drunk on-site (Hamlin
in the light of the new chemistry, mineral waters were no more
than mixtures of simple substances, common water was even simpler
and less interesting. To medical men and to chemists, this eau
commune was to be evaluated as belonging to one of two mutually
exclusive categories: It was either "pure" or "impure."
The terms did not refer to the ideal of chemical purity, which
was recognized as practically unattainable; they were simply used
to indicate whether the water was suitable or unsuitable for general
domestic use (including direct consumption).
the beginning of the nineteenth century, the chemists chief
conception of impurity in water was hardness, the presence of
dissolved mineral earths. Initially, this new focus supplemented,
rather than replaced, the sophisticated classical taxonomy of
waters (no one championed soft water that was obviously foul),
and the quantification of hardness (expressed as degrees of hardness)
was simply a valuable service that chemists could (easily) provide.
Hardness was an industrially significant distinction; for steam
engine boilers and for brewing, tanning, and many textile processes,
the hardness of water was the key criterion. It seemed a medically
significant criterion, too: Just like the steam boiler, the drinker
of hard water could clog up with bladder stones or gout, conditions
that attained remarkable prominence in medical practice, at least
in eighteenth-century England (British Cyclopedia 1835:
s.v. "water"; Hamlin 1990b).
the Industrial World
nineteenth century saw great changes in views of drinkable water
and equally great changes in predominant notions of who was competent
to judge water quality. Despite the chemists infatuation
with hardness, traditional senses-based approaches to judging
water still prevailed in Europe at the beginning of the century.
In choosing waters, ordinary people continued to be guided by
tradition, taste, and immediate physiological effects. In many
cases the standards they used were those found in the classical
literature: Stagnant, "foul" water was to be avoided,
clear, light, "bright" water was to be desired.
midcentury, however, expert definitions prevailed. Often experts
would insist that water that looked, smelled, and tasted good,
and that had perhaps been long used by a local population, was
actually bad. Indeed, in some situations, experts standards
were virtually the opposite of lay standards. Light, sharp water
had those qualities because it contained dissolved nitrates, which,
in turn, were decomposition products from leaking cesspools. The
best-tasting well water might, thus, be the most dangerously contaminated
(Hardy 1991: 801). Less often, experts would insist that
waters that laypeople found objectionable (perhaps because they
had a strong taste of peat or iron) were wholly harmless.
longer were chemists restricting themselves to determinations
of hardness. Even though the techniques at their disposal did
not change significantly (hardness and other forms of mineral
content remained the only characteristics they could determine
with reasonable effectiveness), chemists increasingly were claiming
that they had defined and had the means to quantify what was objectionable
in a water beyond its dissolved minerals. They could, they insisted,
measure those qualities that had been the basis of the classical
water taxonomy better than these qualities could be detected by
key quality that interested them, and which at first supplemented
and then displaced concern with hardness or softness, was putridity.
"Putridity," while a vague concept, had been the centerpiece
of an approach to evaluating water based on ones subjective
repugnance to it owing to its odor, appearance, taste,
and associations (the German word Fäulnis better embodies
such a combination of the visceral and technical). Chemists replaced
the senses-based definition of putridity with more arcane indicators
of putridity or potential putridity. For much of the nineteenth
century, however, they were not in agreement about what precisely
these arcane indicators were or the best ways to measure them.
Some felt it sufficient to determine the quantity of "organic
matter," even though they admitted that this parameter was
in some sense an artifact of analytical instrumentation.
an approach was contrary to the belief that it was some unknown
qualitative factor of organic matter (and not such matter itself)
that was associated with putridity and disease. In any case, "foulness"
or "putridity" ceased to be a physical state of water
and instead became an experts concept indicating an amount
or a presumed condition of "organic" matter. This determination,
in turn, was usually believed to correspond to a presumed fecal
contamination. Henceforth, the repugnance that "putrid"
or "foul" conjured up was to operate through the imagination,
rather than directly through the senses.
champion of this novel perspective was the English chemist Edward
Frankland, the leading international authority on water analysis
in the 1870s and 1880s. Frankland took the view that it was foolish
to try to detect quantities of some unknown disease-generating
agency. It was much better simply to try to discover whether water
had been subject to contamination in its course through or over
the ground. The possibility of dangerous contamination was sufficient
reason for public authorities to avoid such supplies of water,
and the idea of contamination was to be sufficient to compel ordinary
people to avoid its use (Hamlin 1990b).
shift in approaches to the assessment of water that Frankland
exemplifies is a far-reaching one. Associating what might be wrong
in water with the presumed commission at some time past of an
act of contamination made the religious term "pollution"
in its traditional sense of desecration the primary construct
for a discussion of water quality, and it came to replace "foul"
and "putrid" (Douglas 1966). A presumed act done to
the water thus replaced a manifest condition of the water. Although
laypersons had known whether water was "foul" at one
time, it was up to experts to say whether water had been "polluted."
Consequently, water became (and remains) one of very few "foods"
whose most important qualities were defined wholly by experts,
and whose consumption, accordingly, marked complete trust of the
individual in some outside institution: a government, a bottled-water
company, or the maker of a filter.
were, of course, good reasons for such a transformation, and underwriting
it was the fear of waterborne (or water-generated) disease. That
dense urban environments were dangerous to health was a long-standing
medical truth, and water was implicated in this danger: Standing
surface water, particularly in marshes, was believed to interact
in some way with town filth to generate both fever (particularly
malaria) and chronic debilitation. Although consumption of water
was not the focus of concern, there was medical consensus that
drinking such stuff could not be beneficial to health. Yet at
the beginning of the nineteenth century, the doctors were unable
to say much about how and in what ways such water was bad, or
how it became bad, or how serious a problem bad water might be.
Some held that water became harmful by absorbing harmful elements
from a filthy urban atmosphere and was simply another means of
communicating that state of air. Keeping the water covered would
keep it pure, they believed. (Others thought that the putridity
was inherent in the water itself and infected the atmosphere.)
the mechanism, the increasing frequency of epidemic disease was
evident in the newly industrialized cities of the nineteenth century.
They were swept repeatedly by waves of Asiatic cholera, as well
as typhoid fever (only clinically distinguished from other forms
of continued fever in the 1840s), and other enteric infections
(less clearly identified but no less deadly) (Ackerknecht 1965;
Luckin 1984, 1986).
until after 1850 were these diseases commonly associated with
fecally contaminated water, and even that recognition did not
provide unambiguous guidelines for determining water quality because
such contaminated water sources only rarely caused severe outbreaks
of disease. One might assume that they did so only when contaminated
with some specific substance, but as that substance was unknown,
it could not be measured, nor was there a clear correlation between
the quantity of contamination and the amount of disease. Water
that was evidently transmitting cholera was, according to the
most sophisticated chemical measures available, substantially
purer than water that evidently caused no harm. Some, like Frankland,
held that any water that had ever been subject to such contamination
should be avoided, but in heavily populated areas, where rivers
were essential sources of water, this recommendationn seemed impracticable.
these contradictions demonstrated the inadequacy of the lay determinations
of water quality, the techniques of the experts were little better
prior to the twentieth century. Nonetheless, in the nineteenth
century, judging waters became a consummately expert task, so
much so that the European colony in Shanghai felt it necessary
to send water samples all the way to London to be analyzed by
Frankland (MacPherson 1987: 85). And even after the microbes responsible
for cholera and typhoid were identified in the 1880s and means
were developed for their detection, many experts remained skeptical,
unwilling to accept negative findings of their analyses (Hamlin
1990b). But by the early twentieth century, the institution of
chlorination, more carefully monitored filtering, and a better
understanding of the microbe-removing actions of filters finally
led to a widely shared confidence in the safety of urban water
supplies (Baker 1948). Such confidence, however, appears to have
peaked, and is now in decline.
Water for All
fact that cities and towns throughout the world recognize the
provision to dwelling houses of piped-in, potable water as an
essential component in achieving an acceptable standard of living
is remarkable indeed. It involves, in fact, two kinds of public
decisions: first, a recognition of a need for a supply of water
to be readily available to all settled areas, and second, a recognition
of a need for a supply of water to be piped into each dwelling
usually associate both these features (household water supplies
from a public waterworks) as exemplifying the organizational genius
of Imperial Rome and lament that it was only in the nineteenth
century that authorities, guided by new knowledge of disease transmission
and new standards of public decency, again acknowledged water
supply as a public duty. Yet a "hydraulic consciousness"
was well developed in many medieval and early modern European
towns (as well as existing far beyond the Roman empire in the
ancient world) (Burton 1868: 241). This consciousness manifested
itself in the building of public fountains and pumps, the diversion
of brooks for water supply, and even the use of public cisterns
and filters, as in Venice. All of these means were used to supply
water for industrial purposes, for town cleansing, and for the
fighting of fires, as well as for domestic use, but it would appear
that the piping of water into individual homes was not felt to
be important (Baker 1948: 1117; Guillerme 1988; Vogel 1988;
Dienes and Prutsch 1990; Grewe 1991). High-volume domestic uses
of water did not exist; water closets would not become popular
until the nineteenth century; bathing was, at least in early modern
France, seen to be dangerous to health; and clothing (other than
linen) was rarely washed (Vigarello 1988).
no means was the provision of good drinking water atop this list,
but that it was on the list at all is remarkable. How much water
people drank, when and where they got it, how public authorities
assessed the need for drinkable water and understood their role
in supplying it are all questions about which far too little is
known. Summarizing pre-nineteenth-century sources, M. N. Baker
presented evidence to suggest that urban dwellers did not expect
to find raw water drinkable and that knowledge of effective means
for treating waters was widespread.
means ranged from simply allowing sediment in water to settle
and then decanting the water to the addition of purifiers (vinegar
or wine) or coagulants (alum), or to drinking water only in boiled
forms, like tea (Baker 1948: 245). The excessive consumption
of alcohol was also seen by nineteenth-century temperance advocates
as a public response to the unavailability, particularly in poor
neighborhoods, of drinkable water (Chadwick 1965: 13550).
It was probably a prudent response: Beer, in particular, was cheap,
usually made with a higher-quality water than that readily available,
and often more accessible to the poor than water. In Britain it
was drunk in hospitals and schools, not just in taverns (Harrison
1971: 378, 2989).
advocates were often among the champions of public water supplies.
But other kinds of reformers became involved, too, sometimes for
curious reasons. Those concerned with the morals of the poor worried
that a central pump or well was often a locus for the spread of
immorality. Children, waiting to fill water containers (sometimes
for several hours, if the sources are to be believed), were exposed
to bad language, immoral activity, and dangerous ideas. An in-house
supply of water could prevent all that. A public drinking fountain
movement, begun in Britain in the late 1850s (initially supported
by brewers and, surprisingly, not by temperance advocates), received
critical support from the Royal Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals, which was concerned about thirsty animals
ridden or driven into towns that lacked facilities for watering
animals (Davies 1989: 19).
the century from 1840 to 1940, in almost all of the industrialized
world, a public responsibility for providing town dwellers with
in-home water was recognized. The timing and circumstances of
that recognition varied from society to society (and, significantly,
sometimes from town to town), with "public health" considerations
usually providing the warrant for that recognition. Adequate sanitary
provisions came to include the provision of a water closet in
some form and a continuous supply of water that could be drunk
without treatment. Whatever its merit on epidemiological grounds,
this notion of sanitary adequacy represented the successful promulgation
of an ideology of cleanliness and decency that was quite new,
and in this transition the status of water changed. No longer
was it an aliment whose quality one judged independently for oneself,
nor was it something one had to hunt for and sometimes secure
only after much labor (Chadwick 1965: 1412). Instead it
was (or was supposed to be) truly a "necessity" of life,
something easily and immediately available, nearly as available
(and often almost as cheap) as breathable air.
the image of water as a public good essential for meeting universal
standards of health and decency usually supplied the rationale
for undertaking water-supply projects, the ulterior motives of
private interests were often more important in actually getting
waterworks built. Perhaps the most significant of these private
interests were industrial users. Many industries required large
quantities of relatively high-quality water, and the capital costs
of obtaining such supplies were prohibitive for individual firms.
Consequently, they sought to obtain those supplies (sometimes
at subsidized prices) through the sanitary betterment of society.
In port cities with much warehouse space, the threat of fire was
another underlying incentive for a public water supply.
towns took early action to secure control of important watersheds,
either with the expectation of profitably selling water to their
neighbors or of acquiring commercial advantage. Investors found
waterworks projects attractive for a number of reasons, among
them a steady dividend, or the possibility of selling land or
shares at inflated prices. New Yorks first waterworks project
attracted speculators because it functioned as a nonchartered
and hence unofficial, bank. Some of the capital raised was used
to build a waterworks; the rest went into the general capital
market (Blake 1956). It need hardly be said that contractors,
plumbers, and lawyers were delighted to support waterworks projects.
Water is not usually viewed as an article of commerce in the way
that most foods are, yet once it had been defined as a public
necessity, there was plenty of money to be made from it (Blake
1956; Hassan 1985; Brown 1988; Goubert 1989).
this transformation in the availability of water made water drinking
much more convenient, the resultant technologies were by no means
regarded as an unmitigated benefit. Networks of water mains (and
sewer lines) linked people physically across classes and neighborhoods
in ways that they had resisted being linked and sometimes in ways
that proved hazardous. A common complaint about sewer systems
was that they spread disease rather than prevented it because
sewer gas frequently rose through poorly trapped drains into houses.
It was believed that one was exposed to any infection that the
occupants of any other dwelling on the sewer line permitted to
go down the drain. More serious, from the perspective of modern
epidemiology, was the potential of water mains to distribute infection
precisely what took place in the 1892 Hamburg cholera epidemic
(Luckin 1984, 1986; Evans 1987).
for most of the twentieth century, events like the 1892 outbreak
of cholera in Hamburg have been rare in the industrialized world.
When properly maintained and supervised, the water networks work
well. By the end of the nineteenth century, water engineers, finally
possessing the torch of bacteriological analysis to illuminate
their work, made the filtering of water a dependable operation,
even when the water was heavily contaminated. In the first two
decades of the twentieth century, they acquired an even more powerful
technique in chlorination. Initially used only when source waters
were especially bad or in other unusual circumstances, chlorination
quickly became a standard form of water treatment. Even if it
was almost always unnecessary, and merely supplementary to other
modes of purification, chlorination provided a measure of confidence.
That it interfered with (ruined, many might say) the taste of
water was no longer of much importance (Baker 1948: 32156;
Hamlin 1990b; OToole 1990). Thus, the concept of water as
a substance that was necessary to ingest occasionally (even if
it was potentially a mode of disease transmission) had, in much
of the modern world, very nearly displaced the older concept of
"waters" as unique substances, varying from place to
place, some of them downright harmful, others with nearly miraculous
recent years, there have been signs that a further transformation
of the status and concept of water is under way. In the United
States, the authorities responsible for supplying drinkable water
are no longer as trusted as they once were (in many parts of the
world, of course, such authorities have never known that degree
of trust). In some cases that loss of trust reflects a real inability
to maintain standards of water quality. But it also reflects public
concern about new kinds of contaminants, such as toxic organic
chemicals, viruses, and giardia (McCleary 1990; Hurst 1991). In
some cases the effects of these contaminants may only be manifest
after many years and only through use of the most sophisticated
epidemiological techniques (Hand 1988). Nor are customary methods
of water analysis or approaches to water purification yet well
adapted to such contaminants.
response of the public has been to revert to a technology, the
home water filter (or other water purification devices), that
had been popular in the nineteenth century before water authorities
were trusted. For some, drinking water has again become a commodity
that we think we must go out of our way to secure; something that
we haul home in heavy fat bottles from the supermarket. Yet these
responses are not adequate to the problem of trustworthiness.
The capabilities of domestic water purification devices vary enormously,
as does the quality of the product sold by the bottled-water industry
and the degree of inspection it receives (Fit to Drink? 1990).
Indeed, these responses say less about our need for water we can
trust than they do about the institutions we trust.
rise of the elite bottled mineral waters industry is a reversion
too. Pliny tells us that the kings of Persia carried bottled water
taken from the River Choapsis with them (Burton 1868: 242); Herodotus
and Plutarch referred to an export trade in bottled Nile water
some of it used by devotees of the cult of Isis and Osiris
(Wild 1981: 914). Such trade was still widespread in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Then, as now, quality control
was a problem and customers complained about the excessive price
(Kirkby 1902; Boklund 1956; Coley 1984).
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elites have agreed with their predecessors that the taste (can
one say bouquet?) of a water really is important, and that through
the drinking of fine waters one can cultivate ones health
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