During the morning rush hour in New York City, tourists stand out as being the ones looking up. It's possible that they see more clearly what most New Yorkers take for granted: water towers. Those archaic looking wooden structures that grace the rooftops of almost every New York City building play an integral, though often overlooked, part of watering this urban center.

In many parts of the world, if you want water for anything, you likely have to transport the water to your home yourself. This makes taking care of everyday things like bathing, cooking, drinking, or laundry hard. In the late 1980s, when my family still lived in Trinidad, we collected rain water in barrels for the purposes of bathing and laundry (purified water for drinking and cooking came by delivery). As we built up our homestead, large water tanks fed our basic plumbing system and allowed my mom to sparingly run her washing machine—an amazing luxury under those conditions.

Barrels were still commonly used on my grandmother's farm to collect water for the animals when I went to visit in 2001. The tank water was strictly for indoor use and rationed carefully. (The idea of two showers a day was absurdly wasteful behavior.) Though the farm had been built near a river and at least one pond, over time these resources had been diminished with some of the water being diverted to support rice paddies and overall development.

In the American context of plenty, where water is easily accessible by the simple twist of a knob—and we have enough to supply public drinking fountains and decorative waterworks—we probably don't give much though to where that water comes from. It's just there. But if you live in an apartment building in New York City, you have water as a direct result of efforts to clean up the City and increase the well-being of City residents.

Filthy Clean

The story of New York City's water towers has its roots in the sanitation. The state of being clean is a mark of status. It means that you have the means of accessing water and the tools and aids that allow you to remove dirt and other unsavory elements. This applies to places as well as people, and becomes increasingly important to urban areas as they grow in population and stature. Throughout history there is evidence of people employing waterworks for the purpose of personal and public cleanliness: for example, traces of earthenware pipes suggest that the Minoans had some sort of water carriage system and certainly the Greeks and Romans were known for their pipelines, aqueducts, and reservoirs, some of which fueled elaborate public baths and fountains.

However, at some point in the Middle Ages public bathing fell out of favor. Living in the shadow of the plagues of the time, many people believed that bathing opened their pores to illnesses and began to limit this potential vulnerability, especially when it meant sharing water. Public baths and the waterworks that fueled them fell apart from disuse as people began to distrust standing water. This fear extended to water delivered by the mechanized means of rudimentary pumps as well, which was drawn from heavily trafficked rivers and, admittedly, not the cleanest. Instead, people turned to wells, cisterns, and small streams for water for everyday use.

Variations of these explanations for disease would persist into the 1800s (Pasteur's work would not be fully accepted until the late 19th-century). The filth theory, for example, held that dirty, unsanitary conditions caused disease. Early cities were often championed as examples of this truth: Lacking the infrastructure for sewage drainage and garbage pick-up, urban areas grew notoriously noxious as the population grew.

When the Dutch settled New York City, they found an island riddled with natural streams and waterways. Unfortunately, industry quickly polluted the larger of these, such as the Collect Pond, and when the smaller of these were filled in, like the Canal that gave Canal Street its name, it created severe drainage issues, which resulted in lots of "standing pools of filth in courts and alleys" that filled the air with "nauseous gases" (1). The natural drainage issues were compounded by the poor construction of early plumbing systems. In the 1840s, wealthier New York City households may have had indoor plumbing, which would have included at least one faucet and a water closet of some sort, but drainage systems were still in their infancy: builders buried house drains under cellar floors, rendering them inaccessible for repair or cleaning and preventing proper ventilation. If you weren't so lucky as to have your own private facilities, then you shared a water tap and privy in a common yard or hall depending on your financial means.

In 1863 a group of wealthy social-minded New Yorkers led by Dr. Stephen Smith founded the Citizens Association of New York, a group focused on public health reform. They sponsored a citywide sanitation survey in 1864 which revealed the unequal sanitary conditions that plagued the City and launched a campaign to improve the access to health benefits for all people. The New York Times says of this report:

Not only have we in this Citizens' Report a complete sanitary survey, and a body of evidence interesting as it is irrefragible; we have likewise tables, maps, charts, plates, and plans, which, while they attest the liberal spirit of the association, demonstrate also the scientific character of its great investigation. A sanitary and topographical map of the city, prepared by E.L. NIETE, President of the Board of Engineers, illustrates the primitive topography and water-courses of Manhattan Island, the ancient water-lines, the "made ground," and the old and new distribution of drainage, sewerage, etc. Sanitary charts reveal the precise localities and extent of small-pox and typhus fever. Other charts show the situation, space, surroundings, and proportions of tenant-houses. Sections of wards and streets are presented in explanation of the various reports, while graphic illustrations of localities well known to the police and the medical inspector, but which are a terra incognita to the general public, enable us to conceive, in a measure, the "mysteries and miseries" of an overcrowded population.

Such "mysteries and miseries" included unsewered streets or open, above ground surface drains. This report mandated that sanitation be made a priority and that clean water be made available to all citizens of the City.

In 1865, state legislature passed an act that introduced a general sewage system that took into account the natural water histories of New York City districts when creating drainage lines. Unfortunately, these requirements only extended to unsewered areas; older districts would continue to struggle with sewage issues and access to clean water. This conditions would persist until the 1870s when the formation of Department of Public Works would help remedy some of this, with improvements that included the spacing of house connections to the drainage system as well as ventilated manhole covers, but older brick drains remained hard to repair.

Growing City, Growing Water Demands

By 1880, regulations were in place allowing the Board of Health to oversee the installation of all new plumbing works and maintain that three major drainage principles were upheld: that waste pipes were properly ventilated, that durable materials were used for pipes, and that pipes were laid so that they would be accessible for repair. Just in time: during this period, the City would experience a growth spurt that would drive it northward—and up. As buildings grew taller, to maximize efficiency of piping, plumbing fixtures were stacked vertically, so the bathroom of one floor sat below the bathroom of another. However, as taller buildings were introduced, getting water to residents beyond the sixth floor from the street mains was no longer practical: water pressure became an issue.

To this end, top floor storage tanks were introduced, which were filled using hand pumps. Top floor tanks shifted some of the burden from the pumps by using gravity. This practice has endured and gives us the basis for the wooden tanks that line New York City's rooftops. New York City's water towers are built by just three companies: Isseks Brothers, the Rosenwach Group, and American Pipe and Tank. The design for these iconic fixtures hasn't really changed in the time since they were mandated to ensure that all New York City residents had access to water. They're little more than giant barrels that can store between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons of water … which residents use for cooking, bathing, brushing their teeth, drinking, flushing their toilets, and laundry. When the water level drops below a certain level, pumps are activated and the tanks are filled. Wood continues to be used because it's best suited to being outside—and it's cost effective. Steel tanks can cost up to four times as much and have considerable maintenance fees (2). Plus, on a summer day, they can get pretty warm pretty quickly. Wooden tanks keep water cool in the summer and prevents it from freezing in the winter.

These wooden giants, though often overlooked, symbolize an important milestone in sanitation and public health history. Not only did they allow the City to grow—both in population and in height—but they demonstrate that a basic human right has been achieved: that clean water is accessible. Perhaps one day, this symbol and all it entails will extend to all corners of the world.


Charles, Jacoba. "Longtime Emblems of City Roofs, Still Going Strong." New York Times, June 3, 2007. Accessed February 10, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/nyregion/thecity/03wate.html?pagewanted=print

Harris, Elizabeth. "Getting Water to New Yorkers Is a Family Business." New York Times, December 17, 2012. Accessed February 6, 2012: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/nyregion/for-3-families-wooden-water-tanks-are-in-the-blood.html?_r=0

Stone, May. (1979) "The Plumbing Paradox: American Attitudes Toward Late Nineteenth-Century Domestic Sanitary Arrangements." Winterthur Portfolio 14 (3): 283-309.


1. Stone (1979): 292.

2. Charles (2007)