Had I been born a hatter, people would have come into the world without heads. —Christopher Colles, inventor with good intentions
This is a three-part series on the waterworks project of New York City in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is part one. Here are part two and part three.
The story of Manhattan can’t be told without talking about water. Which I do a lot on this blog… but for good reason. It’s not just because Manhattan is an island and therefore surrounded by all that wet stuff, but the sheer magnitude of population growth once it was colonized, and the fact that humans can’t live without drinking water.
You’d think the colonizers would have made drinking water a priority. You’d also think Europeans would have been as intelligent as the indigenous people already there to know you can’t trash an environment and expect it to remain pristine. After all, it’s not like the colonizers came from another planet. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened. The trashing, not the intergalactic colonizing.
Nature’s Natural Reservoir
If we go back to the beginning, to both the Lenape and and the start of this blog, I waxed poetically about Collect Pond for being a freshwater source on an island surrounded by briny rivers, a beautiful place for colonizers to picnic and boat in the summer, skate in the winter, and then dump industrial waste all year long.
For a while, the pond held itself in check. Tea Water Pumpsall over the city delivered fresh water in wells dug to the same groundwater springs that fed the pond. Though, the farther one got from the Collect, the brinier and filthier the water. If folks wanted and could afford the freshest water, they paid Tea-Water Men to deliver it in casks.
All of this worked until it didn’t. Profound, I know. When it became obvious that there was a problem, a potentially huge problem, the New York Provincial Assembly passed a bill in 1742 aimed specifically at ensuring there was sufficient water in the city for fighting fires.
[This was after the fires from the Conspiracy of 1741, which was blamed on the Black population, though it was really white people acting out of fear of their enslaved population rising up against them. Racist is as racist does.]
Oops. They forgot about fresh, clean drinking water, not just the delivery of water.
Love That Dirty Water
That filthy water I mentioned? In short, it was caused by runoff. Have a dead pig? Leave it in the street to decompose and join the stream of refuse and human waste slowly making its way down to…
Who knows? The entire city was a stinking cesspool. Something needed to be done to save the residents of Manhattan from themselves.
Steam Engines in America
In 1774, New York City found a solution in Irish-born inventor, engineer and perennial schlimazel*, Christopher Colles.
After arriving in Philadelphia and lecturing at the American Philosophical Society — a think tank started by Benjamin Franklin — the APS turned him down when he asked for a stipend to build a steam engine. Eventually, a local distillery hired him to build one for pumping water into cooling tanks. A noble purpose, especially by colonial American standards. Those folks loved their ale.
Colles’ steam engine is considered the first steam engine built in America. [Koeppel] By the way, Colles didn’t invent the steam engine. He endeavored to improve on Jonathan Hornblower’s English model.
On April 22, 1774, coincidentally the same day as the New York Tea Party (like Boston, but in New York), Colles presented his plan to the Common Council — the alderman of the city with legislative power — to save Manhattan from its drinking water problem:
In short, Colles wanted to use a steam engine to pump water into a reservoir capable of holding 1,200,000 gallons of water for both drinking and fire fighting. In doing so, he intended to lay a network of pipes made of pitch pine logs bored out six inches and connected with iron rings. They were to be buried four feet under the street, and by gravity, convey a supply of fresh water throughout the fourteen miles of road that made up Manhattan.
After three months of deliberation, the Common Council approved Colles’ proposal. However, it didn’t quite happen as planned.
Manhattan, We Have A Problem
One stipulation from the Common Council was that Colles had to dig a well and prove good water came from it before he could go ahead building his steam engine and laying pipes. Not the problem.
Colles built his reservoir to hold 2,000,000 gallons of water. His steam engine worked ten strokes a minute — not as good as Hornblower’s, but not terrible. And they’d cast the cylinders in February 1775. Getting close to the problem.
The City of New York signed a contract with both Isaac Mann Sr. and Jr. from Albany, New York to purchase 60,000 feet of logs, fourteen to twenty feet long, without shakes or large knots. They were to be shipped down the Hudson later that year. Getting a lot closer to the problem.
April 1775 came, and so did the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There’s the problem.
For all his determination, Colles didn’t quit even as Manhattan emptied of businesses and families in preparation of what… or who… was to come.
General Washington arrived in New York in April 1776 and fortified the city against the British. This was the breaking point of Colles’ project. He and his family fled the city for safety.
By the time the war was over in 1783, there was nothing left of Colles’ project. It would take over sixty years, many preventable deaths, and city-destroying fires before Manhattan had enough clean water to provide for her residents.
Burr Makes It to the Room Where It Happened
In the intervening years — after the war but before killing Alexander Hamilton — Aaron Burr conned the leaders of Manhattan and made a fortune before losing it all. And yes, this has everything to do with delivering fresh water to Manhattan. Next week: Part Two!
Schlimazel: Yiddish, meaning an unlucky person; if a schlemiel trips, he lands on a schlimazel.
Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: a History of New York City to 1898. New York ; Oxford: Oxford university press, 1999.
Koeppel, Gerard T. Water for Gotham: a History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
This post refers to men’s fashion of the 18th century. Please see the footnote below regarding gender terminology.
Everyone — at least in the US — recognizes the subject of the portrait on the right as George Washington, first United States president. Everyone — who hasn’t spent time researching this because they have real hobbies — assumes he’s wearing a white wig because of the frothy hairstyle and the time period. Everyone — including me from a few minutes ago, before I learned this — is wrong. (Thanks, Hollywood!)
Wigs were a big deal beginning in the 17th century. This fashion held until about 1800, which is a very long time for a trend to run its course. What happened in the intervening years? And what made all those men flip their wigs?
As Bald as a Billiard Ball
Heredity and/or other biological conditions, such as auto-immune diseases and the effects of stress on our hormones, cause hair loss. However, these are not the reasons for the wig-wearing craze that began in the 17th century. The sores and hair loss associated with widespread syphilis accelerated the need to cover up.
Summary on syphilis: Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease. Hair loss and sores were only two of the awful symptoms. Though sheaths, or condoms, were available, not enough men wore them, stoking an epidemic in Europe greater than the spread of the Black Death. Syphilis is caused by a specific bacteria and is treated today with antibiotics.
The powdered wig — referred to historically as a peruke or periwig — became a fashion trend when two vain 17th century kings lost the battle with their hair at a young age:
King Louis XIV of France experienced hair loss at the early age of 17, and he hired 48 wigmakers to help combat his thinning locks. His English cousin, King Charles II, began wearing wigs a few years later, when his hair began to prematurely grey — both conditions being syphilitic signals.
Courtiers and noblemen followed their king’s styles, starting a fashion trend that ultimately spread to the merchant class as a symbol of wealth. A single, extravagant wig might cost 25 shillings, or the weekly wage of a laborer. However, men spent upwards of 800 shillings on them yearly. Calculated for inflation, this amount was on par with one of today’s iconic, vintage handbags.
Perukes were made from horse, goat, sheep, or human hair. Day to day maintenance involved powdering with cornstarch scented with orange flowers, rose petals, nutmeg, ambergris, jasmine, orris root, or lavender [Perukes, Pomade, and Powder: Hair Care in the 1700s] to cover odors and filth. Special combs and pomades were used to maintain the wig’s shape.
Occasionally wigs needed delousing. While this may sound objectionable to today’s reader, it was better than the alternative, which was regular infestations of lice in one’s natural hair. Wigs solved this problem because a shaved head made wigs fit properly and a lousy place for lice to live (pun intended, of course). A wigmaker took care of the delousing for their patrons by boiling and nitpicking the wig.
Rockin’ the Rococo
In the beginning of the wig craze, the longer and fuller the wig, the better. Like most fashions, this changed over time.
Wig fashion at the beginning of the 18th century was shoulder-length and full.
By the mid-18th century, buckled side-rolls were popular with nobility and soldiers.
Macaronis preferred wigs with the height and lavishness of the French court.
Little known fact: the song “Yankee Doodle” pre-dates the American Revolution by a good 15 – 20 years. A British military surgeon wrote the song to “mock the disheveled, disorganized colonial ‘Yankees’ with whom they served in the French and Indian War.” [Yankee Doodle]
By the time the Revolution came to Concord, men in America began switching to powdering their hair instead of wearing wigs. In fact, George Washington didn’t wear wigs. He pomaded and powdered his red hair. (This guy over here is Colonel James Hamilton and he prefers pink, a color worn by all genders in the 18th century.)
Wigs became less popular in the latter half of the 18th century. During the Age of Enlightenment, leading up to the American and French revolutions, philosophers questioned leadership based on the circumstances of one’s birth versus the new theory of democracy. Wigs, equated with the nobility, fell out of fashion.
British men were the last to stop wearing wigs. In Britain, the Duty on Hair Powder Act of 1795 meant to subsidize wars with France brought the fashion trend to an end. The tax cost wig-wearers one guinea.
According to author Jenny Uglow, those who chose to pay the guinea hair powder tax were nicknamed “guinea-pigs” by reformist Whigs who chose instead to cut their hair short (the “French” cut) and go without a wig as an expression of solidarity with the French.
Terminology regarding gender in 18th century American and British cultures, as recorded in history, was limited to the binary. Though the gender spectrum exists across cultures and throughout history — including American and British cultures of the time, it did not become a discourse with distinct terminology until the 1950s. These posts reflect binary gender and those who identified in the record as that gender. If I’ve made an error, I welcome feedback as an opportunity to learn.
“As long as primates have been around, there’s probably been myopia —Dr. Ivan Schwab, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California, Davis. 
For humans, the rates of myopia (nearsightedness) have increased alongside the invention of the printing press and later the political fallout of the Reformation.
As literacy rates rose, so did the need for corrective lenses. Not that literacy, or rather education, is bad for the eyes—genes and nutrition also play a role. However, close work such as reading or computer use puts a strain on the eyes, contributing to vision problems.
It’s a good thing lenses and the way we employ them have advanced over the years.
The magnifying glass came about a long time ago. Using convex lenses whose edges curve outward, they are used to magnify an object or focus light to ignite a fire. In 424 BCE, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, a character did just that.
The next advancement came in 1000 CE. Quartz, beryl, or glass shaped like a stone and polished were used as reading stones. Placing these on top of text magnified letters.
Venetian glassmakers in the 13th century produced the first spectacles. By sending these along the Silk Road, among other Italian items to sell, they brought vision correction to Asia. Unlike modern eyeglasses, these spectacles were heavy and very breakable.
Spectacles changed very little for the next 500 years. It took until the 18th century with the prevalence of cheap newspapers and more opportunities for non-clergy to be educated, for Europeans to finally demand better and more stylish options.
Around 1700, lenses were being made round and large, staying on by pinching the nose. The French called them pince-nez.
By 1730, design rapidly changed when Edward Scarlett (1688-1743), optician to King George, produced spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’.  His spectacles could be purchased over the counter, or ground to one’s specifications. In fact, he used a set of lenses with different focal lengths to fit the right spectacles to the customer.
Frames of this era were typically made from whalebone, tortoiseshell, or horn. These materials were both strong and flexible.
During the Georgian era, when men commonly worn wigs, wig spectacles came into fashion. These frames were double-hinged, jointed on the sides meant to be worn over a wig. The shape of the frame didn’t fit the head without one.
By the middle of the 18th century, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) invented the stylish Martin’s Margins. These were silver-framed with spring-loaded arms to stay on better, and round lenses rimmed with dark horn or tortoiseshell to help protect the eye from sunlight.
While Benjamin Franklin is often praised for the invention of the bifocal around 1760, they were in fact being produced in London at this time. His half split lenses, half for distance and the other half for close work. Bifocals like Franklin’s were very important to artists and craftsmen who needed the range for their work.
Lorgnettes came along in the last quarter of the 18th century. They were spectacles one held in front of the face with a handle that doubled as its case. To fit, the bridge of the nose folded at a hinge to slip inside the handle. They became wildly popular with theatre-goers. These are closely related to the quizzing glass in that they were a lens held by a handle, but quizzing glasses were fancier, more like jewelry pieces. They came a little later, at the dawn of the 19th century.
Eyewear protecting eyes from bright sunlight goes all the way back to prehistory with the Inuit and their walrus ivory “glasses” which contained no glass at all. They fit like goggles against the eyes with slits in the middle to reduce the sun’s glare. They also helped in focusing the eyes.
Some credit James Ayscough (1720-1759) with the use of modern tinted lenses for protection against sunlight, but that wasn’t his goal. He was experimenting with blue and green lenses for corrective purposes. It was the Venetians, again, who designed and used spectacles to protect the eyes from sunlight. They made green-tinted sunglasses, which had no UV protection for use against the bright glint of sunlight on water.
In Case You’re Wondering
It wasn’t until the 19th century that ophthalmologists performed eye exams. Before then, a lens-grinder offered lenses with varying focal lengths to choose from.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. —Benjamin Franklin…maybe
Have you ever gone into a stationery or craft shop just to check out the latest pens for their colors, the way they feel in hand, or glidability? (Yes, I made up “glidability.” Don’t be one of those “language is static” people because I’m sure Shakespeare would want a word with thee.)
Speaking of writers writing with quills… Today’s topic is quills, pencils, and erasers, for all your 18th century writing needs.
The 18th century, like the century before it, and before that one too, was limited to quills and pencils. There were styluses, but I’m not going to get into those ancient tools here, just as I’m not going to delve into advances made in the 19th century.
The Mighty Quill
Writers have used quills to write since the Dark Ages. In fact, quills remained in use well after better options became available. Using feathers from common birds such as geese, crows, and swans, quills were cheap to make, and the materials easily acquired. Unfortunately, they had their downsides. If it wasn’t for broken shafts or tips going blunt, the ink spluttered, staining hands and leaving splatters on pages.
Can you collect a feather from the yard and begin writing?
Apparently, not. To turn a feathers into quills:
… [they] were dried, sometimes in hot sand, the exterior membrane was removed, and the remaining tubular structure was either used immediately or hardened by various means, including dipping in acid to make the quill’s point stronger and longer lasting. The quill was finished by three basic strokes of a pen knife.
Incidentally, the word for pen comes from penna, which is Latin for feather.
Get the Lead Out
In 1564, a storm hit Borrowdale, England and toppled a tree. The locals noticed the roots were encased in a solid black substance which scientists of the day mistakenly called “Black Lead.” In fact, it was not lead at all but graphite, a pure carbon molecule.*
So, did a “lead” pencil ever exist?
No. The closest lead has ever come to being used for writing was the lead stylus from Roman and Egyptian ancient times, which I promised not to discuss in this post, yet here we are.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s mines produced the highest quality graphite. Countries in Europe and North America imported pencils produced in England. Until, of course, the importing country and England faced each other across battlefields.
The Napoleonic Wars forced the French to come up with an alternative to the English pencil. Since graphite mined in France wasn’t nearly as high in quality, the French sought a new technique. Nicholas Jacques Conte, a French army officer, developed a mixture, combining graphite, clay and water. By changing the ratio of the three ingredients, French manufacturers were able to produce pencils with varying degrees of hardness.
Likewise, the United States experienced a scarcity of pencils during the War of 1812. With British and European imports drying up in the States, William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Massachusetts, seized the opportunity to make the first pencils produced here.
Let’s return to the 18th century before we do something wild like invent the steel nib.
The Accidental Eraser
From the beginning of pencil use, a stale wad of bread served as an eraser. The first use of a rubber eraser, however, occurred by chance in 1770 when Edward Nairne, an English engineer, accidentally picked up a piece of rubber instead of bread, and found it did a better job of erasing his mistakes. It would take many years before pencils came with erasers attached.
The next time you pick up a pencil, or a quill if you have one lying around, give a moment’s pause to appreciate the longevity of our writerly technology.
(Another day, we’ll take a look at inks and things.)
* Diamonds are also pure carbon, but the arrangement of the carbon structure designates it as either a very hard substance or something soft and flaky.
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?
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
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
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
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.
*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 pleasuregardens, opened as a resort.
All refer to Koeppel, G. T.
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.