This paper uses the examples of three nineteenth-century cities-London, Philadelphia, and New York-to explore both what is permanent about the problem of water provision (that consumers want it clean, accessible, and free) and what is mediated by the forces of government policy and economic constraints. In some cases, municipal authorities first claimed control over water supplies before figuring out how to pay for their works. In others, they calculated that such arrangements were both too expensive and too risky to bear alone. Both approaches were complicated by the high costs of providing water to urban areas and by urban dwellers' belief that water should flow from their taps without charge. The result was, and remains, a market in which price is largely dictated by political demand, set by what the government, rather than the market, will bear.
To the Tap: Public Versus Private Water Provision at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
In 1858, a peculiar plague descended upon London. It wasn't an illness, really, or an attack on the city's dwindling agricultural lands. It wasn't a plague that its victims could see or an infestation of anything they could catch. No, the plague of 1858 was a smell, a smell so foul and potent that the city's residents began referring to it as "the Great Stink." It was a smell that arose from the banks of the Thames, enveloping anything with the bad fortune to be downwind of the river and forcing even such august institutions as Parliament and the Law Courts to close not only their windows but, when the stench was bad and the temperature high, their entire offices as well.1For decades, Londoners had been using the Thames as a source of drinking water, a channel of navigation, and a dumping ground for all the refuse that the growing city generated. According to the Dolphin, an angry pamphlet penned in 1827, the river was "charged with the contents of more than 130 public common sewers, the drainings from dung hills and laystalls, the refuse of hospitals, slaughter-houses, color, lead, gas and soap works, drug mills and manufactories, and with all sorts of decomposed animal and vegetable substitutes."2 Now the Thames was fighting back, imposing its displeasures across the city.Initially, London's response had been measured and slow. City and national authorities convened meetings and ordered studies and learned to cover their noses when the winds blew wrong. In 1828, a Royal Commission devoted to London's water quality solemnly noted testimony affirming that fish from the Thames had been spotted climbing out of the water and gasping for air among the weeds and driftwood.3 What to do with these supposedly gasping fish or the waters that surrounded them, however, was unclear. The river, after all, could not itself be ruled, and London's municipal authorities had limited power over the various firms that brought water from outlying streams and wells into the city.By the final decades of the nineteenth century, however, as Londoners began to grasp the connection between water and illness as well as between water and filth, city officials found ways of claiming their control over water. In a pattern that would be repeated across the European continent and into North America, municipal authorities embarked upon an infrastructural spree, building or buying waterworks at an unprecedented rate. By 1915, the United Kingdom alone had nearly eight hundred public waterworks, serving an estimated two-thirds of the population.4 The United States similarly had 9,850 public systems by the 1920s, and France supplied two-thirds of its major cities through municipal régies by the start of World War I.5 Technologically, these systems combined the ancient goals of water provision with modern methods of treatment and distribution. Following very much in the model of Rome's classical emperors, nineteenth-century city officials built bridges and aqueduct...