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City Water, City Life

Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago

City Water, City Life

Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago

A city is more than a massing of citizens, a layout of buildings and streets, or an arrangement of political, economic, and social institutions. It is also an infrastructure of ideas that are a support for the beliefs, values, and aspirations of the people who created the city. In City Water, City Life, celebrated historian Carl Smith explores this concept through an insightful examination of the development of the first successful waterworks systems in Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago between the 1790s and the 1860s. By examining the place of water in the nineteenth-century consciousness, Smith illuminates how city dwellers perceived themselves during the great age of American urbanization. But City Water, City Life is more than a history of urbanization. It is also a refreshing meditation on water as a necessity, as a resource for commerce and industry, and as an essential—and central—part of how we define our civilization.

344 pages | 31 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Chicago and Illinois

Culture Studies

History: American History, Urban History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


"A fascinating history of the ideas about nature, health, citizenship, and time that informed the construction of some of America’s earliest and greatest water systems. By demonstrating that our urban aqueducts are built out of ideas as much as bricks and mortar, Carl Smith ensures that a simple glass of water will never seem so simple again."

Michael Rawson, author of Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston

“A crucially important new chapter in US urban history. With impeccable research, Carl Smith seamlessly synthesizes nineteenth-century issues of politics, engineering, finance, aesthetics, law, and medicine—all focused on the creation of water systems in three major cities and all coalescing around the idea of the greater good of the public at large. City Water, City Life speaks from history to this contemporary moment when the United States confronts, yet again, the debate over public versus private control of its water.”

Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt University

“A wonderfully perceptive book that provides new insights into the development and implications of water supply in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Readers will find especially valuable Carl Smith’s use of cultural, environmental, and health-related frames to construct an ‘infrastructure of ideas’ relating to water.”

Joel A. Tarr, Carnegie Mellon University

“What a nuanced treatment of water! In City Water, City Life, Carl Smith breathes new life into our understanding of the impact of water supply through his study of Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. While we know a great deal about the systems themselves and how they were developed, Smith focuses on transcendent qualities of water befitting its central role in our lives. As such, he has expanded the audience who will derive a great deal of satisfaction from this study.”

Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City

"A well-researched, engaging read. . . . Recommended."


"This collective examination of three cities allows for a broader understanding of the meanings that American city-dwellers attached to their aqueducts, pipes, pumps, and faucets, and the water that these public works delivered."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“Smith has made an important contribution to our understanding of nineteenth-century urban America by uncovering the cultural foundations of one of our most vital infrastructure networks.”

American Historical Review

“Elegant and concise.”

Journal of American History

Table of Contents


1 Introduction: City Water, City Life
2 The River, the Aqueduct, and the Lake: Bringing Water to Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago
3 The Individual and the Collective: Water, Urban Society, and the Public Good
4 Nature and Art: Water and the Reconciliation of the Natural and the Urban
5 The Urban Body and the Body of the City: The Sanitary Movement, the Temperance Crusade, and the Water Cure
6 The Flow of Time
7 Epilogue


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