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The Sanitary City

The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present

Martin V. Melosi
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    The Sanitary City
    Book Description:

    Immersed in their on-demand, highly consumptive, and disposable lifestyles, most urban Americans take for granted the technologies that provide them with potable water, remove their trash, and process their wastewater. These vital services, however, are the byproduct of many decades of development by engineers, sanitarians, and civic planners.InThe Sanitary City,Martin V. Melosi assembles a comprehensive, thoroughly researched and referenced history of sanitary services in urban America. He examines the evolution of water supply, sewage systems, and solid waste disposal during three distinct eras: The Age of Miasmas (pre-1880); The Bacteriological Revolution (1880-1945); and The New Ecology (1945 to present-day).Originally published in 2000, this abridged edition includes updated text and bibliographic materials.The Sanitary Cityis an essential resource for those interested in environmental history, environmental engineering, science and technology, urban studies, and public health.

    Winner of:George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History Urban History Association Prize for the best book in North American Urban HistoryAbel Wolman Prize from the Public Works Historical SocietySidney Edelstein Prize from the Society for the History of Technology

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7337-9
    Subjects: Technology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    InService Delivery in the City,the authors stated that “delivering services is the primary function of municipal government. It occupies the vast bulk of the time and effort of most city employees, is the source of most contacts that citizens have with local government, occasionally becomes the subject of heated controversy, and is often surrounded by myth and misinformation. Yet, service delivery remains the ‘hidden function’ of local government.”¹ Service delivery is a “hidden function” largely because it often blends so invisibly into the urban landscape; it is part of what we expect a city to be. While economic...


    • 1 Sanitation Practices in Pre-Chadwickian America
      (pp. 11-27)

      Prior to the 1830s, many American cities faced poor sanitary conditions and suffered crippling effects of epidemic disease. Few communities could boast of well-developed technologies of sanitation, and much of the responsibility for sanitation rested with the individual.

      As England urbanized and industrialized in the eighteenth century, provincial urban communities only began to challenge the rural-dominated North American landscape. Colonial towns and cities grew in political, social, and economic importance, but only modestly in size and number.¹ The 1790 federal census showed that city dwellers represented less than 4 percent of the nation’s population, and only two cities exceeded 25,000....

    • 2 Bringing the Serpent’s Tail into the Serpent’s Mouth: EDWIN CHADWICK AND THE “SANITARY IDEA” IN ENGLAND
      (pp. 28-39)

      Mid-nineteenth-century England’s “sanitary idea” made popular the notion that the physical environment exercised a profound influence over the well-being of the individual—that health depended upon sanitation. This concept reshaped thinking about the delivery of pure water, the removal of sewage, and the collection and disposal of refuse. As one writer put it, the greatest service of the sanitary idea was “in replacing … fatalism by a new faith in the power of scientific control of the physical environment.”¹

      The advent of the sanitary idea offered a clearer rationale for improving sanitary services. Historian Ann F. La Berge, however, argues...

    • 3 The “Sanitary Idea” Crosses the Atlantic
      (pp. 40-49)

      Beginning in the 1830s, urban growth in the United States and vague notions connecting waste with sickness led to several citywide technologies of sanitation, especially water-supply systems. In the following decade, the design and development of these systems were strongly influenced by the English “sanitary idea” pioneered by Edwin Chadwick. American cities underwent their first major sanitary awakening between 1830 and 1880, a change so profound as to establish a blueprint for environmental services for years to come.

      The fundamental characteristics of the new technologies of sanitation were born in an era of miasmas. Sanitarians spread the word about environmental...

    • 4 Pure and Plentiful: FROM PROTOSYSTEMS TO MODERN WATERWORKS, 1830–1880
      (pp. 50-60)

      Early in the nineteenth century, a few water-supply protosystems began to appear in major American cities. Philadelphia’s project set the standard for these protosystems, although it did not spark an immediate national trend. By 1880, some water supplies were evolving into modern citywide systems. Not only did they deliver greater quantities of water over a larger area, but they also included rudimentary safeguards to ensure purity. A growing preoccupation with water quality—a direct result of the sanitary movement—was bringing attention to filtration techniques and new methods of water treatment. City leaders and sanitarians alike were demanding more from...

    • 5 Subterranean Networks: WASTEWATER SYSTEMS AS WORKS IN PROGRESS, 1830–1880
      (pp. 61-68)

      In contrast with strides made in waterworks, the development of underground wastewater systems was meager between 1830 and 1880. Noted sanitary engineer William Paul Gerhard observed that progress in sewerage had been much slower than water supply. “This can be, in a measure, explained by the fact that taxpayers are nearly always willing to pay a small annual tax for water,” he argued, “and hence the financial success of such a scheme is rarely in doubt, whereas a sewerage system does not yield an annual revenue, but, on the contrary, causes sometimes large operating expenses.” “It is,” he concluded, “…...


      (pp. 71-81)

      By the late nineteenth century, faith in environmental sanitation as the primary weapon against disease lost followers, especially in the medical community. Bacteriology placed more emphasis on finding cures for disease as opposed to prevention, which had been the mainstay of sanitary reform since the 1840s. Nonetheless, the commitment to develop elaborate urban infrastructure for water and wastewater services—and eventually refuse disposal—continued unabated. By 1920, many American cities could boast about plentiful sources of pure water and efficient methods of waste disposal to a greater degree than ever before.

      Why did the movement for environmental sanitation persevere into...

    • 7 Water Supply as a Municipal Enterprise, 1880–1920
      (pp. 82-96)

      By the late nineteenth century, there was a strong feeling among municipal leaders that any respectable community needed citywide waterworks.¹ In 1870, the total number of waterworks stood at 244. By 1924, it was estimated that approximately 9,850 waterworks had been constructed in the United States. The number of waterworks in operation increased more rapidly than population growth in 1880 and 1890.

      The trend in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries suggested a move from decentralized to centralized systems and from labor-intensive to capital-intensive methods of delivery.² Some were expanded versions of the older protosystems with increasingly distant surface-water...

    • 8 Battles at Both Ends of the Pipe: SEWERAGE SYSTEMS AND THE NEW HEALTH PARADIGM, 1880–1920
      (pp. 97-112)

      The value of public underground sewerage systems was widely acknowledged by the late nineteenth century. Between 1880 and 1920, however, three major issues remained: Were citywide water-carriage systems financially feasible? What kind of system best suited a city’s needs? How was sewage disposal to be handled? Disposal of wastewater, due to massive increases in piped-in water, proved to be the major stimulus to underground sewerage development. The older cesspool–privy vault methods were incapable of handling the load. Despite the fact that their functions were linked, water-supply and sewerage systems were rarely interconnected or managed as components in a larger...

    • 9 The Third Pillar of Sanitary Services: THE RISE OF PUBLIC REFUSE MANAGEMENT, 1880–1920
      (pp. 113-128)

      Since the advent of the sanitary idea, refuse collection and disposal had been lumped into the same category as water supply, drainage and sewerage, ventilation, and other public health problems that could benefit from the application of environmental sanitation.¹ While water-supply and wastewater systems were evolving into public functions, refuse had yet to rise above the category of “nuisance.”

      The “garbage problem” began to receive public notoriety in the 1880s. First, the accumulating household wastes, ashes, horse droppings, street sweepings, and rubbish became too overwhelming in the growing cities for individuals to deal with themselves. Second, sanitarians had made an...

    • 10 The Great Depression, World War II, and Public Works, 1920–1945
      (pp. 129-134)

      After World War I, neither the quality nor character of sanitary services underwent substantial change. Decision making, however, was complicated by two major disruptions: the Great Depression and World War II. Both changed the nature of city-federal relations and helped transform essentially local service delivery into systems increasingly influenced by regional and national concerns. The challenge for municipal officials, engineers, planners, and sanitarians was also to adapt sanitary services to growth characterized by metropolitization and suburbanization, as well as demand for such services in small towns and rural communities.

      Water supply and wastewater were linked into regional systems or mired...

      (pp. 135-146)

      Despite cycles in the economy from the 1920s to the 1940s, construction and expansion of waterworks continued steadily. Many of the new systems were rudimentary ones in numerous small communities. In 1924, there were approximately 9,850 waterworks in the United States, and approximately 14,500 in 1940.¹ Although the rate of growth was strongest from the 1890s through the early 1920s, increases in the 1930s were significant due to the infusion of New Deal funds.

      Public ownership of waterworks rose only slightly between 1920 and World War II, but the percentage of those owned by the public was relatively high. In...

    • 12 Sewerage, Treatment, and the “Broadening Viewpoint”, 1920–1945
      (pp. 147-157)

      Sewerage systems changed in scale more than in kind after 1920, as attention focused on approaches that could keep pace with urban growth. The debate over separate versus combined systems failed to rise to the previous level of intensity, but performance of those technologies had decision makers questioning their choices. In addition, the independent development and maintenance of water and sewerage systems were reconsidered, as treatment facilities were strained by rising volumes of wastewater related to increased water use.

      Laying sewer line had long since become an essential feature of American urban infrastructure. In 1870, 50 percent of city dwellers...

    • 13 The “Orphan Child of Sanitary Engineering”: REFUSE COLLECTION AND DISPOSAL, 1920–1945
      (pp. 158-168)

      In a 1925 article inAmerican Journal of Public Health,George W. Fuller referred to garbage disposal as “an orphan child of sanitary engineering.” He went on to suggest that “engineers have had only random contact with [refuse collection and disposal] and their authority and opportunities for needed research have been inadequate to ascertain what the problem really is in different cities and how works can be best built and operated.”¹ Samuel A. Greeley was not as charitable: “Garbage disposal is a phase of sanitary engineering perhaps less closely related to the public health and in which less progress may...

  4. Part III. THE NEW ECOLOGY, 1945–2000s

    • 14 The Challenge of Suburban Sprawl and the “Urban Crisis” in the Age of Ecology, 1945–1970
      (pp. 171-179)

      Relentless peripheral growth and central-city deterioration characterized post–World War II urban conditions and affected technologies of sanitation. Sprawl placed stiff demands on providers of water supply, sewerage, and refuse collection and disposal. For its part, suburbanization proved to be a financial drag on service delivery. Social scientist Dennis R. Judd noted that a study of metropolitan areas “found that the cost of central city services was explained more by the suburban population level than by any other factor.”¹

      For the first time, concern over a decaying infrastructure raised important questions about the permanence of the sanitary systems devised and...

    • 15 A Time of Unease: THE “WATER CRISIS” IN AN EFFLUENT SOCIETY, 1945–1970
      (pp. 180-191)

      AFortunearticle on infrastructure in December 1958 stated flatly that water supply and sewerage “remain a signal failure in public works.” “These vital deficiencies,” it added, “are being attacked haphazardly, reluctantly, and locally, instead of on an area-wide basis, which is the only effective approach. And not only are water and sewerage facilities woefully deficient, their potential as a powerful tool for shaping communities is being almost totally overlooked.”¹

      This assessment was harsh, but it is clear that many sanitary systems built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were in decline by the mid-1940s. The Committee on...

    • 16 Beyond Their Limits: DECAYING SEWERS, OVERFLOWS, AND FOAMING PLANTS, 1945–1970
      (pp. 192-199)

      Surging metropolitan growth after World War II presented a challenge to city officials and engineers in developing new sewerage systems or augmenting older ones. Statistics suggest that expansion of sewer systems kept pace with growth. Between 1945 and 1965, the number of sewered communities rose from 8,900 to more than 13,000—an increase from about 75 million to 133 million people served by combined and/or separate systems.¹ Unsewered areas were located primarily in rural communities or in outer suburbs.² Between 1942 and 1957, population clearly outstripped the expansion in sewerage; from 1957 to 1962, sewerage grew slightly faster.³

      Some contemporaries...

    • 17 Solid Waste as “Third Pollution”, 1945–1970
      (pp. 200-209)

      By the 1960s, solid waste had become a national environmental issue. In his 1970 book, William E. Small stated, “Today, there is a general recognition that solid wastes are a cancer growing on the land, awful in themselves and awful in the way they further foul the already polluted air and waters near them—a third pollution inextricably interlocked with the two that have been long considered as unacceptable environmental hazards.”¹

      Land pollution joined air and water pollution as a triad of blights deserving federal action. The editors ofSourcebook on the Environmentproclaimed that the solid-waste problem “took the...

    • 18 From Earth Day to Infrastructure Crisis: FORCES SHAPING THE NEW SANITARY CITY
      (pp. 210-224)

      Implementation of new sanitary services and maintenance of existing systems faced serious challenges after 1970 as metropolitan growth became more complex, urban fiscal problems deepened, and environmental concerns intensified. By the early 1980s, there was much talk about a looming “infrastructure crisis.”

      Historians David R. Goldfield and Blaine A. Brownell have stated, “A new era of urbanization emerged after 1970, though few Americans noticed it at the time. Culminating a trend begun in 1920, the 1970 census announced that we had become a suburban nation.”¹ Historian Jon C. Teaford added a new dimension to this observation by suggesting that the...

    • 19 Beyond Broken Pipes and Tired Treatment Plants: WATER SUPPLY, WASTEWATER, AND POLLUTION SINCE 1970
      (pp. 225-239)

      In the wake of the “infrastructure crisis,” water-supply and wastewater systems were spared dire predictions about deterioration in several major studies. A 1987 report of the National Council on Public Works Improvement (NCPWI) stated that a national water-supply “infrastructure gap” of the magnitude that “would require a substantial federal subsidy” did not exist. Urban water-supply systems as a whole, it concluded, “do not constitute a national problem,” although a national problem did exist for small water-supply systems.¹

      This assessment was based on comparisons with other components of the nation’s infrastructure. Water and wastewater needs appeared modest when compared with highway...

    • 20 Out of State, Out of Mind: THE GARBAGE CRISIS IN AMERICA
      (pp. 240-258)

      On March 22, 1987, the garbage bargeMobroleft Islip, New York, looking for a landfill that would take its disagreeable cargo. Over two months, five states (North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida) and three countries (Mexico, Belize, and the Bahamas) banned the barge from unloading. Reluctantly, the captain turned theMobrotoward home, where it received a dispirited welcome. Somewhat ironically it was allowed to dump its 3,100 tons of waste where it started.¹ The garbage barge story was a journalist’s delight, highlighting New York’s chronic problems of service delivery and exposing the insensitivity of the Sun Belt...

  5. Epilogue
    (pp. 259-264)

    By the twentieth century, most major American cities and many smaller ones had achieved the goal of establishing permanent, centralized citywide sanitary (environmental) services. This was a major accomplishment. Water was readily available for home and business use, for combating fires, and for tasks too numerous to mention. Effluent and refuse flowed away or was hauled away in a systematic and usually efficient manner. Cities were being spared the most serious consequences of many communicable diseases. As we have seen, these vital services, which were intertwined and sometimes hardly visible in the maze of urban infrastructure, were intimately connected to...