(Soldiers, Army of the Potomac, 1864, drawing water from a well in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  LOC.)

Children stare at me with big disbelieving eyes when I tell them that if they lived in the Colonial era, or even any decade of the Nineteenth Century, their contribution to the running of the household would have been carrying in water along with a host of other chores.  Clean water, and plenty of it, is taken for granted today, but in times past having it was quite a different matter.

Pre-1850 sources discuss water from rain, springs, rivers, wells (also called pump-water), lakes, and marshes.  Rain was considered the purest form of water, declining in quality to marshes at the lowest end of the spectrum.  “Spring water is rain water, which having strained through the earth, reappears at the surface.” 

In those days, the only contaminants one usually needed to be concerned with were vegetable or animal matter and lead which leached out from leaded pipes or lead-lined cisterns.  Both were known to cause illness. 

The earliest settlers chose sites for homesteads where creeks or springs would provide water and cisterns, wells, and rain barrels worked for others, but no water source was guaranteed to provide water during draughts.  Creeks and springs dried up, wells went dry, and cisterns and barrels were soon emptied when settlers had no means of keeping them replenished.

The quantity of spring water yielded by any given district varies materially, not only according to the amount of rain which falls, but also according to its geological matter.  – British Association of Science.  Report of the Annual Meeting.  1855.  London.

It wasn’t always possible to situate a cabin or house in close proximity to the water.  Perhaps the ground was too marshy or hilly close to the water source, or someone already owned all the land through which the stream ran.  In such cases, water was carried in buckets, sometimes a mile or more distant. 

Spring water was sometimes fed into homes via pipes by means of gravity-flow before pumps became common.  Those pipes were first made by hollowing out wooden poles and attaching them together, end to end.  Wooden pipes rotted quickly and gave way to leaden ones when available.

Citizens were cautioned about the harmful effects of lead-lined cisterns, and of cisterns in which the only the underside of the lids were lead-lined.  While the water might have rarely ever come in contact with the lid, it was still unhealthy to have the lid lined in lead because condensation formed on the underside of the lid and fell back down contaminating the water supply. 

Wells fell into three classifications, surface water, deep wells, and artesian wells.  They were initially dug by hand and it was not uncommon to sink two or three holes before one found adequate water.  The same precautions with the use of lead applied to well water.  – Greenwell, Allan.  Rural Water Supply:  A Practical Handbook.  1899.  London.

Hauling water was steady employment for some men, Indians, and “Chinamen”, ethnicity of the hauler often depending on location.  It was certainly not a learned skill to fill a container and haul it in a cart or wagon and deliver it, so wages earned usually weren’t very good. 

The quality of water was as important as the quantity.  As early as the 1760’s physicians had questioned impure water as the cause of typhus and cholera, and by the 1840’s it was an established cause of the disease.  – Royal Society of Arts.  National Water Supply.  1899.  London.

I would adduce the fact that drinking water is one of the greatest agents for the spread of two of the most fatal and acute diseases of the present time –namely cholera and typhoid fever.  In the ten years ending 1866, twenty-one thousand, three hundred and forty-eight persons died from cholera in England and Wales, and one hundred and ninety-two thousand, five hundred and sixty-two from fever. – Parvin, Theophilus.  Western Journal of Medicine.  Sept. 1869.  Indianapolis.

It was extremely important to keep the area around and above an open spring, stream, or well clean and cleared of any fecal matter, dead animals, or offal that could be washed into the water by heavy rains to prevent contamination and disease.  Likewise, physicians instructed on being vigilant in not allowing water stored in cisterns, tanks, or other holding devices to become stagnant with extended storage as doing so was also likely to cause disease.  The water supply for villages and towns and on sailing ships was known to suffer in this manner.  – Chambers, W. & R.  Chambers’s Papers for the People.  1851.  Edinburgh.

Books and reports published through the end of the nineteenth century outlined water sources that were barely less primitive than when areas were first settled.  In the rural South, wells were still being dug by hand well into the twentieth century.  My grandfather supported a family with four children during the Great Depression by digging wells by hand and hauling the dirt out by buckets attached to ropes. 

(April 1939, Coffee County, Alabama, a boy draws water from a well for home use.  LOC)

The next time you turn on a faucet stop a moment and consider what a blessing it is to have plenty of clean water at your fingertips.

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