From the Archives

From the Archives: Bottled Water Advertisement, 1906

This bottled water advertisement was printed in the 1906 edition of Boyd's Co-Partnership and Residence Business Directory of Philadelphia City, a predecessor of the modern phone book.

Before Philadelphia’s filtered water treatment and distribution system was completed in 1909, City water had the potential to carry a variety of water-borne illnesses. Many diseases were caused by the bacteria-laden sewage that was being dumped, with no disinfection or treatment, into the same rivers (the Delaware and Schuylkill) from which the drinking water supply was drawn. The most common of these illnesses, typhoid fever, was especially virulent in 1906, killing more than 1,000 people and sickening perhaps ten times as many.

This spring water company is clearly using this tragic situation to drum up business. Its illustrations, however, are misleading. On the right, any “sewage” in the city water would not be visible, although still deadly. And just because water comes from a spring, and looks clear, as shown on the left, does not mean it is not also contaminated.

Before water filtration, it was not uncommon for the Philadelphia Water Department to recommend (via newspaper articles and other publicity) that any water for cooking or drinking be boiled to kill any disease causing bacteria. Today, the filtered water supply is tested continuously, while bottled waters are not, which is why Philly Water straight from the tap just might be the safest option. At about a penny per gallon, it is certainly the cheapest!

Laying water pipe along Wissahickon Ave. at Venango St.October 18, 1904

PWD Catalogue No. 1986.002.1713

This is a remarkable photograph for the wealth of information it depicts, of the work scene and the surrounding area, and of the manner of dress of the workmen. Hats were de rigueur for men, both in this photo and during this time period, but the hatless man at the center has clearly spent too much time on his hairdo to cover it up. The horse drawn steam engine (on which the name plate is readable: “Eagle Engine and Boiler Works, Philadelphia. PA.”) is probably pumping either groundwater or accumulated rainwater from the trench in which the pipe is being laid. In the background is Hotel Abbey, serving “Pilsner & Puritan” beers from Schmidt’s, a local brewer.

From the Archives: Mill Creek Sewer under construction 1883


This has become an iconic photograph, used in books, articles and other publications to illustrate both 19th-century sewer building and, more specifically, the process of building a combined sewer in a stream bed. The stream, Mill Creek, rises near Narbeth, in Montgomery County, PA, and once flowed for five miles through West Philadelphia, from the aptly-named Overbrook railroad station near 63rd St. and City Avenue down to the Schuylkill River along the line of 43rd Street. Today, only the section of creek in Montgomery County remain above ground; within the city limits, the main creek and all its tributaries were incorporated into the Philadelphia sewer system, a 30-year project that began in 1869 and ended around 1900.


The bottom half of the sewer, called the invert, was already constructed by the time this photograph was taken, and Mill Creek had already been diverted into this artificial channel. The masons are now constructing the top half of the sewer, called the arch. You can see the circular wooden form on which the bricks are being laid, two bricks thick at the top. The form is about 20 feet long, and once the mortar sets the form will be dismantled and reconstructed to build the next 20 foot section.


Some of the workers have stood still for the camera’s long exposure, while those who moved while the shutter was open appear only as see-through ghosts. Two children look to be on their way to or from (or maybe skipping) school to observe the work. In the upper right is a textile factory building that had used the water of Mill Creek for industrial processes such as washing, bleaching and dyeing; now it will have to use city water for these purposes. On the left a remnant of the natural creek bed is visible, and in the background are houses that have already been built right up to the edge of the work in progress.


After the sewer was completed, the land was filled about 30 feet above the original stream bed, the grid of streets was laid across the valley, and this once-rural area was transformed into part of urbanized Philadelphia by the development that quickly followed. The sewage of these new houses and businesses, carried by a system of tributary pipes, flowed into the Mill Creek Sewer, along with stormwater and the remnant flow of the above-ground portion of the stream. With the creek buried out of sight, it quickly dropped out of mind, and people who lived in the neighborhood called Overbrook, or even one called Mill Creek, could not tell you the source of those names. Meanwhile, forgotten or not, the old mill stream, now conscripted to the dirty job of carrying away a neighborhood’s wastes, still rolls on, beneath the streets.

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