During the early 1850s, the city of Hartford, Connecticut developed its first successful system of plumbing. Controversies surrounded the development of water-supply systems in this town, and many neighboring cities. The public objected to the idea that a single utility could monopolize access to water, set pipes in their streets without consent, risk creating sinkholes in the event of leaks and perhaps leave residents without access to water in the event of mismanagement and bankruptcy. In Hartford, they also objected to lead pipes because of the risk of painter's colic, or lead poisoning.

The risk that corporate failure would damage the city and leave it without a sustainable water supply may seem far fetched in hindsight. Cities including Hartford have universal access to water, and the universality of access is taken for granted in the United States to a degree that accounts of communities without such access are framed as critical exposes of malfeasance.. Such articles remind us of the difficulty inherent in imagining the world without clean water at the mouth of the tap. This is worthwhile as an exercise because it challenges us to think critically about how infrastructure becomes normalized and how it renders substances that define our everyday lives invisible.

The invisibility of water reflects our faith in the efficacy of environmental standards and the availability of alternatives to piped water. Hartford's Metropolitan District suggests strategies for finding lead solder and piping in homes, but the service pipes were not initially made with lead, and the use of lead piping was formally prohibited in the late nineteenth century But if we want to know why the mid nineteenth century water works developers chose cast iron instead of lead for their water mains, we need to know what actually constituted clean water. Mid-nineteenth-century engineering solutions to lead poisoning focused on preventing corrosion by limiting the time water spent standing in lead pipes. Recommendations from farm journals suggested running standing water for a few minutes to clear any corroded lead out of the pipes. They also cautioned against allowing the formation of air bubbles and the use of water rich in carbon dioxide because it increased the acidity of water and hastened corrosion. These approaches proved cruder than the present day strategies of testing for lead and using anti-corrosive agents to prevent the dissolution of lead, but they do not differ substantially in the logic of their approach to lead poisoning.

Where nineteenth century debates differed was the forms of expertise that went into the management of water. While technical questions such as parts per billion dominate present day discussions of lead, the debate during the construction of the water works that would become Hartford's Metropolitan Water District turned on the condition of trout. An account of a well house in Sturbridge, Massachusetts suggests that keeping a trout as an indicator of water purity was not so hairbrained as we might assume.1 Indeed, the commonness of these stories suggests that this was a normal element of the landscape, even if it was not a ubiquitous one.


  1. John Obed Curtis, β€œAn Early Well House, Sturbridge, Massachusetts,” Old Time New England 53, no. 191 (1963): 79–83, http://www.historicnewengland.org/collections-archives-exhibitions/collections-access/collection-object/capobject?refd=SC001.1963.053.191.002. ↩