Place  /  Retrieval

Testing the Waters in Gotham

The three forms of water distribution form a fluid archive of community formation, civic pride, and the many ways New Yorkers can choose the water they drink.

New York City’s white population drinks more tap water than other racial groups. The Black population drinks more bottled water, and less straight tap and filtered water. The Asian population is clearly over-represented in filtered (and, as I learned anecdotally, boiled) water consumption, with seven in ten Asian residents filtering, compared with five in ten across the whole city. There is a slight tendency in non-college-educated residents to drink more bottled water than college-educated ones, suggesting a historical inversion compared to a few decades ago. Writing of the 1980s and 1990s, Matthew Gandy found that “a degraded public water supply system now operates in combination with increasing access to private sources of drinking water by the better-off, in a dangerous reversion to nineteenth-century patterns of service provision. The increasing use of bottled water by the rich also presents a bizarre inversion of the contemporary picture in developing countries, where the poor rely on expensive water vendors whereas the middle classes are connected to cheaper sources of piped water.” 

Studies of water infrastructure focus, predictably, on the availability of tap, its quality, and its expansion inside cities and out into the watershed. Studies of bottled water consumption, however, rarely historicize non-tap water consumption, focusing on late modernity extraction of profit through water commodification, facilitated by advances in light plastic technologies

Browsing nineteenth-century daily newspapers, I was surprised to learn that water filters were used before and after the inception of the Croton Aqueduct system in 1842. While some were simple sleeves, other filters were quite similar to the current day charcoal filters, the most common form of filters in urban homes. An 1846 ad mentioned that “patent diaphragm filters” made of “artificial stone “will last for years, and are afforded at $3, $4 and $5 each … for purification of the Croton and all River waters.” 

Some turn-of-the-century, high-end restaurants, like their contemporary counterparts, noted on their menus that they used filtered water. In 1900, Hotel Netherland (1893–1927, located at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street) specified that “all the drinking water used in these premises is filtered by the Buhring system.” Prior to the 1920s spread of domestic refrigerators, water filters were used by local manufacturers of ice supplied households and restaurants, especially because of the pollution of underground water in the city. Knickerbocker Ice Company in Brooklyn explained that it “creates its ice from the purest water supply, in ice plants that are models of cleanliness—and filters the water four times.” Water coolers also existed since the early 1900s, as did five gallon water jugs made of glass, instead of their current incarnation in hard plastic.