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date: 22 October 2019

What Is Public and What Is Private in Water Provision: Insights from Progressive Era Cities in the US Northeast

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

During the colonial period and into the mid-19th century, residents of US Northeast cities drew water for domestic uses from local ponds, rivers, and ground water sources. In these early urban settlements, procuring water was a daily activity and one linked to economic class. Water provision was often a blend of public and private efforts—if residents wanted a well or a sewer built in their neighborhood, they had to help pay for it. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, city officials in the US Northeast made the gradual transition from relying on private water companies to implementing the public management of water supply. As quickening urbanization and growing immigrant populations rendered local and privately managed water sources undersupplied, elected officials began to search for new sources of water.

Each city’s history is unique, but common themes include an increase in water pollution, the need to tap new water supplies further from city centers, disease prevention, fire extinction, and financial corruption, within both private water companies and municipal efforts to supply water. While most cities of the US Northeast transitioned to municipal operation of water supply during the 19th century, this shift was not without its challenges and complexity. Funding shortages often prevented change, but crises, such as fire, drought, and infectious disease outbreaks forced the hands of municipal officials. Philadelphia was first to transition to public water management in 1801, followed by New York in 1842, and Boston in 1848. In the late 19th century, New York experienced municipal delay, countered later by Progressive-era political forces that ultimately assured permanent public water management. The story of the emerging publicity of water management during this historical period sheds light on a larger narrative about the changing role of the state during the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. It was during the 19th and early 20th centuries that the public management of water triumphed over private in the cities of the US Northeast.