|Technology and Culture: Chapter 5
Public Sanitation in Philadelphia
Even as the imperial crisis intruded on their lives, city-dwellers confronted
long-standing problems occasioned by rapid growth. The fastest-growing city
in eighteenth-century America was Philadelphia, whose population approached seventeen thousand
in 1760 (see Figure 4.2 in Chapter 4). One key to Philadelphia's rise was its location as both a major Atlantic port and the gateway to
Pennsylvania's farmlands and the Appalachian backcountry. Local geography also contributed to its success. Choosing
a site at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, William Penn
had built Philadelphia along a system of streams and the
tidal cove on the Delaware into which they flowed. Philadelphians referred to the principal stream and cove together as "the Dock," for one of their principal functions. The Dock's shores were the setting for the early city's mansions and public gathering spaces. As some residents pointed out in 1700, the Dock was the city's heart and "the Inducing Reason...to Settle the Town where it now is."
Over time, the growth that made Philadelphia so successful rendered its environment,
especially its water, dangerous to inhabitants' health. Several leading industries used water for transforming animals and grains into consumer products.
Tanneries made leather by soaking cowhides several times in mixtures of water
and acidic liquids, including sour milk and fermented rye, and with an alkaline
solution of buttermilk and dung. Before periodically cleaning their vats, tanners dumped residues
from these processes into the streets or into underground pits from which
they seeped into wells and streams. Breweries and distilleries also used
water-based procedures and similarly discarded their waste, while slaughterhouses put dung, grease, fat,
and other unwanted by-products into streets and streams. Individual residents
exacerbated the problems by tossing garbage into streets, using privies that
polluted wells, and leaving animal carcasses to rot in the open air. Most of the city's sewers were open channels that frequently backed up, diverting the sewage
to the streets. Buildings and other obstructions caused stagnant pools to
form in streets, and when the polluted water did drain freely, it flowed into the Dock.
Almost from the city's founding, residents had complained about the stench arising from waste
and stagnant water left by the tanneries and other large industries. Many
attributed the city's frequent disease epidemics to these practices. In 1739 a residents' petition complained of "the great Annoyance arising from the Slaughter-Houses, Tan-yards,...etc. erected on the publick Dock, and Streets, adjacent." It called for prohibiting new tanneries and for eventually removing existing ones. Such efforts made little headway at first. Tanners,
brewers, and other manufacturers were among the city's wealthiest residents and dissuaded their fellow elites from regulating
A turning point came in 1748 when, after another epidemic, the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed an ad hoc committee
to recommend improvements in Philadelphia's sanitation. One member, Benjamin Franklin, was already known both for his
innovative approaches to urban issues, as when he organized Philadelphia's first fire company in 1736, and for his interest in the practical applications
of technology. Combining these interests, Franklin advocated applying new
findings in hydrology (the study of water and its distribution) and water-pumping
technology to public sanitation. Accordingly, the committee recommended building
a wall to keep the high tides of the Delaware River out of the Dock, widening
the stream's channel, and covering over a tributary that had become a "common sewer." The plan was innovative not only because it was based on hydrology but also because it acknowledged
the need for a public approach to sanitation problems. But once again, neither
the city, the colony, nor private entrepreneurs would pay for the proposal.
Many elites declined
to assume the sense of civic responsibility that Franklin and his fellow
advocates of Enlightenment sought to inculcate.
Only in the 1760s, after both growth and pollution had accelerated, did Philadelphia
begin to address the Dock's problems effectively. In 1762 the Pennsylvania Assembly appointed a board
to oversee the "Pitching [sloping], Paving and Cleansing" of streets and walkways, and the design, construction, and maintenance of sewers and
storm drains--all intended to prevent waste and stagnant water from accumulating on land.
In the next year, residents petitioned that the Dock itself be "cleared out, planked at the bottom, and walled on each side" to maximize its flow and prevent it from flooding. The Pennsylvania Assembly
responded by requiring adjoining property owners to build "a good, strong, substantial wall of good, flat stone from the bottom of the
said Dock," and remove any "encroachments" that blocked drainage into or on the streams. Finally, legislators had implemented
the kind of public, engineering-based solution that Franklin had advocated
two decades earlier.
While some owners evaded their responsibility, others went even farther by also building an arch over the principal stretch
of the Dock. Then they installed market stalls on the newly available surface.
Once an open waterway used for transport and valued as a central landmark,
the Dock was now a completely enclosed, engineered sewer. A new generation of entrepreneurs now dominated
the neighborhood, catering to consumers who preferred a clean, attractive
By 1763, however, Philadelphia's problem with sanitation had grown well beyond the Dock. Thereafter, the growing controversy over British imperial policies diverted
official attention from public health problems. Yet by empowering poor and
working people, that very controversy encouraged some to point out that improvements
at the Dock had changed nothing in their own neighborhoods. Writing in a city newspaper in 1769, "Tom Trudge" lamented the lot of "such poor fellows as I, who sup on a cup of skim milk, etc., have a parcel
of half naked children about our doors, ...whose wives must, at many seasons of the Year, wade to the knees in carrying a loaf of bread to bake,
and near whose penurious doors the dung-cart never comes, nor the sound of
the paver will be heard for many ages." Both public and private solutions, Trudge and others asserted, favored the wealthy and
ignored the less fortunate. Environmental controversy had once again shifted with the course
of politics. But the Revolution would postpone the search for solutions.
Philadelphia's problems with polluted water persisted until 1799, when the city undertook
construction of the United States' first municipal water system.