Aesthetics in the Archives

Water Main Break at Spring Garden Station, December 1895 (

The massive water main break at Frankford and Torresdale Avenues last month inspired yet another one of our fishing expeditions at PhillyHistory. And one photographic treasure we hooked offers a bit of perspective on the 23 million lost gallons—and then some.

A December 1895 monster break between the Spring Garden Water Works and Brewerytown washed out a swath 18 feet wide and 11 feet deep. It obstructed the Reading Railroad tracks with debris and pushed tons of gravel where it wasn’t welcome.

But this water main from 1895 was only half the diameter of the one that broke last December. That broken 60-inch pipe allowed water to gush across neighborhoods, affecting residents in eight zip codes. To emphasize how much water 23 million gallons is, newsfolk reported it was the equivalent of 34 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Olympic swimming pools? Sorry, that’s too obtuse a reference for this sedentary city dweller. And translating it into 920 suburban pools isn’t much better. What we need is an illustration that’s more down to earth.

Like bathtubs. At 36 gallons per bath, we calculate that the 23 million gallons of water that cascaded through city streets might have meant a good scrub up for 638,889 people—or 41% of the city’s population.

Reminds us of the cartoon by Jerry Doyle from 1937, when The Philadelphia Record editorialized against the city’s recent purchase of Paul Cezanne’s painting, The Bathers. A proud William Penn, descended from his City Hall pedestal, steps across the threshold of a squalid tenement and shows off his new Cezanne to a poor, single mom. “Lookit!” declares the smiling Penn, “I bought you a pretty picture.”

The $110,000 price for the Cezanne, which has hung in the Philadelphia Museum of Art ever since, was enough, The Record editors pointed out, to install bathtubs in half of the 40,000 Philadelphia homes that lacked proper plumbing.

PhillyHistory’s men-at-work photograph, which dates five years before the Cezanne, is a powerful and telling composition in its own right. And it represents a compelling new idea about modern beauty. Nothing against Cezanne, mind you. He has a place in the history of art, at Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Barnes Foundation (where another version of The Bathers resides).

Not too many decades before the 1890s, “a gentle brook purled” and the “dogwood-tree bloomed most abundant” where the Spring Garden Waterworks stood.  Historians Scharf and Westcott noted that industry had “obliterated” this “charming little valley” and those searching for its “wild beauties” would “wander in vain amid the ponderous and immense buildings of Brewerytown.”

What would they find there? An entirely new species of wild beauty, an urban aesthetic, a reality made of iron, mud and men. It echoed neither the natural past nor the classical past. This gritty beauty was derived from and thrived on the industrial city—an appreciation of the here and now.