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

By Herve Deguine, World | The Christian Science Monitor, May 27, 1992 | Go to article overview

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


Herve Deguine, World, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

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. …

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