Tea Water Pumps

Many consider New York City water as some of the best tap water in the country. It’s certainly responsible for their amazing bagels and pizza. So when Pehr Kalm, all known as Peter Kalm, a Swedish botanist, traveled through New York City in 1748, and declared, “There is no good water to be met within the town itself,” what was he talking about?

Drinking Tea

Three ladies and a gentleman sit around a table drinking tea and socializing. Painting.
Tea Time by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 18th century, the only potable water New York City residents could drink came from the only freshwater source on the island, Collect Pond. If you recall, the East and Hudson Rivers are tidal estuaries, making the water too salty to drink. Luckily, for early New Yorkers, they established tea-water pumps in various locations throughout the inhabited wards of the city. Unfortunately, the further away the pump was from Collect Pond’s underground springs, the more brackish the water tasted.

Why was it called “tea-water?” Because it wasn’t good enough to drink plain, but was passable as water used for tea. Of course, you can always make beer with it.

Comfort’s Notorious Tea-Water Pump

Etching: A small boy sits on the side of a street pump. A man in the distance walks away with a bucket. Pump on Greenwhich Street, Blow Canal.
Rogers, William Allen, 1894. Source: NYPL

The best place for procuring water was Comfort’s Tea-Water pump (near today’s Greenwich and Liberty Streets). Comfort’s well was deep enough to reach a clean freshwater spring. Enslaved people were sent there to fill kegs every morning and evening. While Comfort’s well was superior to other public wells, it was also notorious for the disorderly house next door. Hughson’s tavern scandalously offered entertainment and liquor to a mixed crowd of enslaved people, and other men and women of different races.

Comfort’s Tea-Water Pump came to an abrupt end in 1741 in the aftermath of the Conspiracy of 1741, also called the Great Negro Plot. Mysterious fires were set across the city, and white slave owners feared a coming massacre. The evidence was dubious and witnesses had their own agenda. In the end, nearly 100 likely innocent people, mostly Black, were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.

After, the Common Council passed a law requiring Black people (enslaved, servant, or free) to get their water from their local well. This reduced the ability for enslaved people to congregate and plan an uprising. It also meant poorer quality water.

Public Water Pumps

WPA poster. History of Civic Services in the City of NewYork. Water Supply. No 2. Below it says: 1750 "All except the very poor bought their supplies for drinking from vendors who filled their barrels at the three or food good wells called."
Bock, Vera, WPA, 1936. Source: Library of Congress.

The fires during the alleged Great Negro Plot encouraged the Provincial Assembly to pass a law in 1742 for the upkeep of the city’s wells and pumps, aimed specifically at ensuring a sufficient supply of water to fight fires.1 These laws specified that the alderman and his assistant managed the wells in their ward. They appointed an overseer for repair and maintenance, and based on property values, residents paid an assessment tax. The law also put in place fines for vandalism to the wells, such as cutting ropes or breaking pump handles.

The taxes and fines collected by the city allowed for “the sinking of new wells, installation of pumps, and continued maintenance.”2

Tea-Water Men

Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a Scottish born physician traveling through New York in 1744, noted in his journal that wealthy residents received large casks of water from hired “Tea-Water Men.” For forty-five shillings a year, they carted water from the Tea Water Pump (near today’s Baxter and Mulberry streets), near to where Comfort’s had been.

At a little distance there is a large spring of good water, which the inhabitants take for their tea and for the use of the kitchen. … Those who are less delicate on this point, make use of the water from wells in town, though it be very bad.”

— P. Kalm, 1748

*The* Tea-Water Pump

The Hardenbrooks, who installed in a well and pump on their land, must have seen an opportunity when Comfort’s pump closed. The Tea-Water Pump became New York’s single source of good water for the rest of the colonial period.3 Right before the Revolution, the Tea-Water Pump Garden, like other nearby pleasure gardens, opened as a resort.

Ladies sitting beside a large tree painting or looking at the scenery. A spring in the background. A horse and cart in front of the tree. Photograph.
(Not New York, but this is what I imagine the garden by the springs looked like.)
American homes and gardens, 1907. Source: Smithsonian Libraries/Wikimedia Commons

Footnotes:

All refer to Koeppel, G. T.

Sources:

  • Bock, Vera, Artist. History of civic services in the city of New York Water supply No. 2: The tea water pump garden. New York City New York, 1936. [New York: Federal Art Project , Pt. 4, 1936] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/98518656/.
  • The Catskill Aqueduct and Earlier Water Supplies of the City of New York: With Elementary Chapters on the Source and Uses of Water and the Building of Aqueducts, and an Outline for an Allegorical Pageant. (1917). United States: (n.p.).
  • Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York. (1918). (n.p.): (n.p.).
  • Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
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