sewers & sanitation

sewer sections

Sectional diagram of a sewer reconstruction under West 12th Street, from George Waring’s 1902 Report on the Social Statistics of Cities.

Although Croton Aqueduct water arrived in New York in the 1840s, it was not until 1868, when the results of so much extra liquid being added to the water table had turned Manhattan’s peripheral lowlands (where many immigrants and few Knickerbockers lived) into a swampy morass, that the City of New York undertook to build and maintain a coherent system of sewers. Until that time, such sewers that existed had either been built privately—mostly by landowners wishing to remove their own excreta further than their backyard and basement privies—or by the city to deal with specific problem areas.

The sewers were constructed under the aegis of the Croton Aqueduct Department, but alas the sewermen who built and maintained them did not really have the luxury of cleaning up after work in a bath hall. This was the era when the catchphrase “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” was coined, and such an establishment might have been conceivable, except for the fact that the city government was corrupt and the workers very low on the social totem pole. Workers did use gaff to ream out narrow pipes and spent much of their time clearing sludge.

I found no record of the use of standardized boots by New York City sewer workers in the 19th century, but the boots in Metropolis are based explicitly on boots worn by the men who worked in the Paris sewers designed under Hausmann in the mid-nineteenth century. A brilliant and fascinating book called Paris Sewers and Sewermen by Donald Reid was extremely useful to me in researching the sewer parts of Metropolis. Another resource on this topic was Joanne Goldman’s Building New York’s Sewers, which I first read as a bound dissertation, before it was published.

Public Summer Baths on the Hudson River.
Public Summer Baths on the Hudson River. Men and women had separate hours.
They bathed naked and were subject to a ten-minute time limit.

Street cleaning was an enormous job in the 19th century.
In addition to general dirt and debris, the streets were constantly being
strewn with horse manure.

Paris sewermen booting up.