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Water, Water, Everywhere: Water as a Social Tool in America

Written by Bella Coyne

In December of 2023, the town of Newport, Rhode Island, re-dedicated their original water spring in the center of town – recognizing an effort which began three hundred and eighty-four years ago. The site became a public park called Spring Park, a gorgeous green space overlooking the water, which now brims over with locals and tourists alike. 

According to Newport This Week, “From this location…the ‘town’ of Newport was founded as a ‘haven for religious freedom’.” Today, the two structures in the center of Newport are the Touro Synagogue and Spring Park. That illuminates the colonists’ priorities in 1639. Freedom meant both spiritual and physical survival. Today, we’re going to unpack the latter – how water flows through our social history, and where it will continue to take us. 

In the 1810s, the United States was beginning its great westward expansion. Among countless others, a family named Cheairs uprooted their life in North Carolina, crossed the Cumberland Gap, and settled in Middle Tennessee. The area in which they landed quickly became known as Spring Hill, because of the many springs which popped up as the land was being settled. 

A good way to think about it is this: if you’ve ever gone camping, you either bring gallons of clean water with you, or you make your campsite close to a body of water and plan to purify it yourself. It’s the exact same principle with the early settlers – only the stakes are significantly higher. At the end of the day, you can always hop back in your car and drive back to civilization. The Cheairs family did not have that luxury. Where they settled was where they had to stay. And, aside from the small fact that humans need water at least once every three days to survive, they were also farmers. Until towns were established, most (if not ALL) of the folks moving out west were there to farm! And you can’t exactly farm without water, can you? 

In this way, the Agrarian communities, which became towns, which became cities, came together and put down roots wherever the water was. But as technology developed, and water seemed more of a guarantee, it took on a new role – a social tool. 

Scullery maids, the lowest of the low in the household, were young women who assisted the kitchen staff in the most undesirable job: washing dishes. A scullery was the room hidden away for precisely that purpose. The Oxford Dictionary takes time to note that it was also for “dirty household work.” Although, in truth, it was simply an overflow kitchen, those who worked in the scullery were at the bottom of the service food chain. The job carried with it a certain stigma. This system was in place only for upper-class households. 

Conversely, for the middle class, gathering water for the day was a women’s job; an opportunity to gather with friends around the well or the water pump. Gossip of all kinds was exchanged. But by the mid-1800s, more than just gossip was circulating in the water– a massive cholera outbreak was sweeping the world.

This particular outbreak took the lives of immigrants on Ellis Island and Manhattan (most of them Irish), spread through the Mississippi River, and wreaked havoc out west as brave souls flocked to the land of milk and honey. One of the many victims was President James K. Polk, just three months after his term as president came to a close. In the United States alone, as the disease spread across the newly-transcontinental nation, it is estimated that approximately 150,000 Americans died during that pandemic. 

Think about the last time you left a water bottle in the car during the summer, and it sat in the cupholder overnight. Or, that time you went to a restaurant and could just tell you were being served tap water. Or, even, when you were too lazy to clean out your insulated cup, and you just kept topping off the water, and after a couple of days, it just tasted….weird. 

Our palates are so sensitive to the flavor of water today, because in the United States, we’re used to drinking clean, ph-balanced water on the daily. That wasn’t the case at all in the nineteenth century. As Dr. Walter J. Daly writes for the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 

“Sanitation was casual. Drinking water was either dipped or pumped from shallow dug wells, rivers or lakes….Water sources and sewage disposal were positioned for convenience, not safety - often so close together that the odor and taste of drinking water was a problem.”

By 1854, however, sheer catastrophe fueled scientific innovation. Across the pond, in London, nearly 10,800 people died in a single year. Interestingly, the most concentrated deaths were occuring around Broad Street, in the Soho neighborhood. This caught the attention of Dr. John Snow – whom we know today as the father of epidemiology. After nearly six hundred deaths in ten days, he began searching for the common denominator. He found it in water. 

Those that were making use of the water pump on Broad Street contracted, spread, and succumbed to cholera at an unprecedented rate. The low-class workers, inmates, and poorhouse residents remained untouched. How could this be, since disease was associated with poverty and filthiness? 

Dr. Snow theorized that the handle on the Broad Street pump itself must be contaminated. The prisons and poorhouses had their own supplies of water, so they weren't making use of the Broad Street pump. In his own words:

“...there has been no particular outbreak or increase of cholera, in this part of London, except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking water of the above-mentioned pump-well [on Broad Street].… the handle of the pump was removed the following day.” 

Almost immediately, the sickness disappeared. This sent a shockwave across the world. Could water be a vessel for disease? 

But although science was severing the link between poverty and cholera, in the United States, that link was reinforced on the grounds of racism. Instead of considering the lack of clean water in poor communities, scientists and politicians placed the blame on the poor communities themselves. The African-American population in the South suffered some of the most egregious losses. By the time of the Jim Crow laws, the notion that cholera was a “black disease” was considered fact, giving rise to some of the most infamous pillars of segregation: separate swimming pools and drinking fountains. 

However, for white America, money flowed and sanitation increased. By the turn of the 20th century, facilities akin to Roman bathhouses were springing up across the country. Originally, they were intended to be a place for lower-class workers to bathe themselves and relax after hours of fierce hard labor. Remember, this is coming out of the Gilded Age. Just about everyone not named Rockefeller or Morgan was laying railroad tracks, digging trenches, and shoveling coal daily. Typically, these pools were separated by gender, but as more and more Americans gained access to running water in private bathtubs, their function became more social than sanitary. 

So, next time you pack up bologna sandwiches and stake your claim on the very best poolside chair at the rec center, remember those who swam before you, without the luxury of a private bathroom at home – a privilege we often take for granted. More importantly, remember those who were rarely given the chance to participate. According to The Saturday Evening Post:

“While African Americans comprised 15 percent of the [St. Louis] population in the 1930s, they had access to just one public pool, while white residents had nine pools.”

We talk about bus strikes and diner sit-ins as some of the most significant forms of protest during the Civil Rights Movement – and as we should! But we also should mention the massive impact of protesting at public pools and waterparks. From St. Louis to Washington, DC, tension erupted between white pool-goers and black youth, often ending in chaos and bloodshed. And in 1964, when the Supreme Court desegregated public spaces, many recreational centers across the states either disregarded the law, began charging memberships which most black Americans couldn’t afford, or filled in their pools entirely. That’s right. They would rather deprive communities of a gathering space, then allow others deemed “less than” to share in it, too. 

But the deprivation didn’t last long. In fact, it sparked an age of innovation which ultimately gave rise to the vinyl pool: an affordable and accessible option for the average American. By the 1980s, even amidst an economic recession, the backyard pool was on the rise. The New York Times published in 1982,

“...many homeowners had come to regard pools as an additional investment in their properties. And during a time of national economic uncertainty…they are more apt to spend their money on their homes to increase their equity than to take long summer trips.”

Today, approximately 8% of American households have a pool. That equates to around 10.7 MILLION private swimming pools. Even so, we must draw attention to the racial gap that remains. In 2010, the University of Memphis estimated that nearly 70% of black children couldn’t swim. The CDC published the deeply upsetting fact that black children are 5.5 times more likely to drown than white children. 

How is America working to change that? Nonprofits like Black Kids Will Swim, SwemKids, and Streetwaves have blossomed, working tirelessly to teach children from underprivileged communities to swim. Not only is this life-saving work, it is joyful, empowering work, too. Black children are learning how to swim and the gap is closing. America is long overdue in working towards a future where black communities are welcomed and encouraged to participate in this activity (which white families have had access to for years). 

And what about the water pumps, which represented medical discovery, women’s work, community, and safety? They have become irrelevant as the country expands – thanks to Dr. Snow, we’ve discovered and prevented the spread of waterborne diseases; we’ve redefined homemaking; we’ve installed private, indoor plumbing. Civilization no longer revolves around the closest water source. In the United States, clean, on-demand water is largely a guarantee.

Remember the scullery? The most hidden-away, degrading part of the household in which to work? Well, we suggest asking Martha Stewart, and Better Homes and Gardens, what they think. Sculleries are a full-blown trend now, especially in farmhouse-chic homes. In open-floor-plan kitchens that function more like gathering spaces, architects are turning to the ways of the past to dictate the future of homes. But this time, sculleries don’t exist to separate “dirty work” and servants from the hosting space. They create more space for entertaining. 

Ever heard of a sommelier? A highly-trained connoisseur of wines, a person who can detect the region of grapes and list their Myers-Briggs type, and most importantly, curate a wine selection for restaurants. Well, these days, you don’t have to drink wine to be a beverage professional. 

Martin Riese is a water sommelier, and he is…well, the coolest person we’ve researched in a while. While the international water market tends to be heavy on the luxury, commodity, consumerist side, Riese introduces a more sustainable approach to water. He works to conserve water and honor it for what it is: a gift. Of course, he also designs water tasting courses, and offers a custom tasting box which you can have shipped right to your doorstep. 

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published in 2021 a study entitled “The Future of Water”. They propose a direct link between poor government leadership, harmful treatment of earth, and water insecurity, while listing the countries most at risk for water scarcity over the next twenty years. The United States is not on that list. 

In order to keep it that way, we have an incredible responsibility. Firstly, we must understand what a privilege it is to have near-constant access to water; ELKAY water fountains (the kind that tell you how many bottles you’ve saved from the ocean), vast selections of still or sparkling in every gas station and Michelin-star restaurant, and even flowing straight from the tap. 

Next, we get to look over our shoulder at the history of water, and ask ourselves if we’ve been good stewards of America’s natural resources. Are we cultivating and preserving, as in the case of Newport (where they are also working to restore the original pipe that runs through the island)? Are we using water as a weapon to divide?

Are we appreciating water, as in the Bon Appetit article: “Fine waters are made exceptional in the same way everything else is: a community of people find themselves captivated by it, and absolutely nerd out together.” Or are we allowing it to become just another product on the market? With these questions in mind, maybe we can begin to step forward with awareness…and a bottle of San Pellegrino. 

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