Historian Says `Domestication' of Water Was Essential Step to Modern Civilization

By , World Media

WATER is not a given. All civilizations have had to struggle to obtain it.

But in Europe, "in the 19th century, the situation suddenly shifted, and the conquest of water, which until then had been out of reach, took place, continuing until the eve of World War II," says historian and researcher Jean-Pierre Goubert of the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris in an interview.

Mr. Goubert is categoric: The domestication of water is one of the great achievements of modern civilization.

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What were the needs of a man in the 19th century? "Everywhere in Europe, the needs for water were more or less the same, about 20 liters [21 quarts] of water per person per day: seven for drinking, cooking, and washing oneself. The rest was used for cleaning and various industries," Goubert says. In Paris, the European capital of water and purification, demand went from about 10 liters daily on the eve of the French Revolution to about 120 liters by 1890.

The same phenomenon occurred in Germany and England a few years later. Irrigation was practically nonexistent, and industry demanded few resources. "At least that was the estimate of the experts of the time, who were very concerned about knowing the population's exact needs."

Where did one obtain water? "There were several classic locations for water," Goubert says. "In the large cities, people took some of their water directly from rivers. It didn't matter that the Thames was as black as ink, people drew water from it as they needed to."

Public fountains were another source of supply. Across Europe, they were a center of life and socializing. "In Paris, people lined up at the famous Samaritan fountain, or Place Saint-Sulpice. But the best-known fountain was that at Passy: Water there gushed naturally from underground and people believed that its quality was better than average." But "apart from public fountains, there was no free water," Goubert says. "Water always belonged to someone, to the lord of that place."

The price of water, which was quite high, slowed down the progress of personal hygiene for a long while. A bath cost about 1 franc, or about one-third of a day's wage. "People had to rent the canvas water carriers used to avoid splinters. Of course, one bathed fully clothed. When necessary, people diluted large amounts of salt in the water to hide their bodies: Nudity was a sin.

Until water was domesticated, people did not wash often. "Among the masses, people were convinced that dirtiness was a defense against disease. The more-elevated classes covered body odor by spraying themselves with eau de Cologne." It was only at the end of the 19th century that a whole literature on the best ways to use water to care for the body gained wide circulation.

Increasing demand led to the development of the water trades. "The water-bearer was the most popular person. Equipped with two 30-liter barrels that he refilled at the fountain, he traveled his neighborhood of the city and filled orders."

But there were many other trades. Less well known, "the water-diviner played a very important role. He belonged to a guild that one could join only through heredity or initiation." Once a source was located, the well-digger was called in. "His was a dangerous trade because of the risk of cave-ins, but it paid well."

It was the same for the fountain-builder, who constructed and maintained the fountains. But "the 19th century was fatal to his trade; the fountain-builders who worked with copper piping were supplanted by a rival guild, which specialized in cast-iron piping." The man who invented machines to heighten the water level was also well-known. "From the hand pump to the machines that furnished water to the royal fountains or to the fire pumps, his talents were constantly sought after."

The person with the brightest future, however, was the seller of mineral water. "There were at least 20 rival brands in the 19th century. Mineral water was sold in glass bottles, bore a label indicating its origin, and most of all, carried a medical guarantee," since it was given first of all to sick people as a curative or preventive. "Because it was very expensive (between 1 and 6 francs per liter), only 10,000 bottles were sold annually, especially in springtime and at the beginning of summer."

Finally the true water industry appeared at the end of the 19th century, with the fashion of thermal-bath cures. "The European aristocracy traveled to Bath, England; Ems, Germany; from Plombieres in France to the elite baths of Italy to `take the waters.' The fashion launched by Madame de Sevigne in Vichy, the concern for `good health,' took root."

City water was more or less healthy. Goubert says he considers that "laundrywomen, who lived in permanent contact with water, were the most threatened by water-borne diseases.... Especially because of cholera. This ... malady did not disappear from Europe until late, thanks to progress in public health. But typhoid fever was still a problem at the beginning of the 20th century."

Can one go so far as to speak of water pollution in that era? Not really, Goubert says. "First of all, we must remember that water was for a long time considered clean, regardless of what it looked like. That may be surprising, but no one thought that water could be bad." Not until the work of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier would this attitude change. The author of "The Nature of Water" was the first in France to show that water is a compound substance whose quality can be analyzed.

"But this concern was shared by all Europeans: In Germany and Italy others made the same discovery at the same time," Goubert says. This scientific progress was immediately exploited: "Four years after the publication of Lavoisier's work, the Perrier brothers founded the Soci des Eaux de Paris...."

"For the people of the time, there was no water pollution. There was good water and bad water, that which had been used safely and that which was known to be dangerous." People had an intimate link with water. "To wash one's hands before a meal was both a sanitary and a religious act; the sacred and the profane were strictly meshed in people's minds."

This simple link has vanished today. Positivism has stripped water of its sacred nature, "it has made it commonplace, a neutral substance," Goubert says, while individualism has privatized it. "It has ceased to be a tie between people or a moment of collective life. Water was a corvee [feudal labor exacted from a peasant by a lord], but it was also an occasion for meeting or playing. Today it is a mere instrument."

In summary, "we have lost the notion of rarity and the values that accompanied it. But if there were suddenly several days of drought, the most-ancient behavior would return in a flash," Goubert says.

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