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The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present

Author(s):Melosi, Martin V.
Reviewer(s):McSwain, James B.

Published by EH.NET (May 2002)

Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from

Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,

2000. xii + 579 pp. $61.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6152-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James B. McSwain, Department of History, Tuskegee


This well researched and comprehensive survey of urban sanitary systems in the

United States examines fresh water supply, wastewater discharge, and

solid-waste disposal, in three chronological periods, colonial to 1880, 1880 to

1945, and 1945 to 2000. Each period reflects successive scientific and

technical paradigms about disease and environment. Melosi tracks the “broad

trends” in American sanitation delivery, and how experts such as engineers and

sanitary advocates, who shaped and followed public health and disease theories,

influenced and managed campaigns to put sanitary services in place. Three

analytical threads — which assess how policy decisions affect the choice and

implementation of public services — run through the narrative: environment,

systems development, and path dependence analysis,

Sanitation advocates up to 1880 worked under the notion that miasmas — filth

and bad odors — caused disease and sickness. Generally, waste disposal was an

individual responsibility. Cesspools, pits, and bailing out privy vaults took

care of community needs. Widespread public support for pure water supplies was

apparent in waterworks construction, which steadily increased through 1870, but

quickly the central issue became money for construction and ongoing operation

of such expensive facilities. In contrast to fresh water systems, networks to

handle wastewater did not advance much in the 1830 to 1880 period, because they

did not generate revenue. After 1880 bacteriology became the reigning disease

paradigm. In terms of water supply and waste disposal it focused attention on

microscopic pollutants in water and refuse.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century many municipalities acquired

their own waterworks. New York City, for example, faced water shortages by the

1880s owing to leakage, drought, and unpredictable levels of consumption. The

city had to push north and tap into the Catskill Watershed. It was also during

this time that water consumers became increasingly concerned about disease

prevention and bacterial contamination in water. Use of sand filtration and

chlorine disinfectants attacked the problem leading to sharply falling rates of

typhoid fever and other water-borne infections.

Large-scale municipal waterworks increased the volume of fresh water

significantly, stimulating sewerage construction to get rid of the massive

amounts of wastewater generated. Despite not being revenue productive, sewer

systems grew after 1880 as long as they could show a capacity for expansion and

costs could be justified under current budgets. Memphis found itself in

desperate need of sewerage despite costs and other considerations. Engineer

George E. Waring provided a plan, which to save money, ignored storm water

outflow. The Memphis experience, Melosi contends, proved to be a chapter in an

ongoing debate over separate versus combined systems, or whether or not to

flush sewage waste out of a community along with storm water overflow, or to

discharge each one in its own separate network.

In addition to fresh water supplies and wastewater disposal, a third issue,

solid waste or “garbage” disposal, became an important public problem after

1880. Many cities dumped their garbage into water or buried it in vacant lots

where foul odors often became unbearable for local residents. This led citizen

associations to demand changes in disposal. As the possible dangers of

bacterial growth in refuse gained public attention near 1900, cities took

street cleaning and refuse pickup seriously. Even so, what to do with rubbish

proved almost to be an intractable problem. Incineration was quite popular, but

frequently produced bad odors or incompletely burned material that filled the

air with toxic particles.

Not much substantial change in sanitation systems took place from World War I

to World War II, leaving administrators with the challenge of adapting existing

supply and disposal networks to urban growth. This led to regional linkages and

subsequently to jurisdictional disputes, complicated by a fiscal crisis that

pushed sanitation financing and planning in a national direction. During World

War II water pollution “at the source … emerged as a national issue” (p.

224), pushing ahead of the pre-World War I concern over sewage and disease

prevention as objects of public concern. Once attended to, it became clear that

industrial activities introduced a huge number of dangerous metals and other

substances into the water system. During World War II monitoring and regulating

this problem fell into the hands of the United States Public Health Service

(USPHS). Two legislative acts, the Refuse Act of 1899 and the Oil Pollution

Control Act of 1924, had earlier passed Congress, but both proved too narrow in

scope or politically unenforceable to do much good.

Sewerage systems between the wars changed in scale but not much in kind. Many

towns outgrew existing sewer networks. During the New Deal public works money

went at first to water supplies, and only subsequently to sewerage because

beneficiaries had to be “self-liquidating” or recover costs through revenues

(p. 240). The PWA occasionally used funds to coerce cities into following

certain construction or fiscal practices. Earlier debates over treating sewage

versus filtering drinking water did not go away. “Clarification, oxidation, and

disinfection,” notes Melosi, remained the basic treatment answers, but they had

to be adjusted to larger volumes of water (p. 248). The outcome was that the

public came to see well-designed sewage treatment facilities as being as

important as water purification. Melosi argues that this “broadening viewpoint”

was an important transitional step from concern for individual health to a more

“sophisticated environmental outlook” (p. 256).

Part III of Melosi’s work examines the “New Ecology” paradigm that after 1945

supplanted the bacteriological viewpoint. Metropolitan growth continued in the

post WWII era through relentless annexation, population growth, and housing

construction. Accompanying this was a shift in thinking and then practice from

traditional public health issues of pure water, sewerage, and refuse disposal,

to an ecological viewpoint. This viewpoint combined a concern about a potential

breakdown in sanitation technologies in the face of chemical and industrial

pollutants and a decayed urban infrastructure, with an increasing awareness of

the effect of human consumption and disposal on the natural world.

The first crisis of the post-1945 period was availability of fresh water.

Various droughts in the 1940s and 1950s forced administrators to admit that

certain areas faced long-term water shortages which demanded better planning,

obtaining new supplies, and making existing systems very efficient. It also

emphasized that groundwater contamination had become a critical problem. The

Federal government addressed water quality in this era in the Water Pollution

Control Act of 1948, followed by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act

Amendments of 1961, Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1965, the

controversial Water Quality Act of 1965, and creation of the Federal Water

Pollution Control Administration (FWPCA) the same year.

Just as water supply systems struggled to keep up with post-war growth, so also

sewage systems had trouble keeping up with metropolitan expansion. Some cities

instituted special sewerage service charges to maintain enough revenue to stay

in operation, repair defects, and build extensions. Most suburban areas used

septic tanks for disposal, but as towns grew, it was necessary to hook up local

sewers with nearby central systems in large cities.

By 1970 solid waste disposal had caught up with shrinking water supplies as an

important national problem. By the early 1970s, the forty-eight largest cities

in the United States were spending nearly fifty percent of their environmental

budgets on solid-waste management. Incineration and landfills remained popular,

although tests suggested landfills could be sources of groundwater

contamination. The Federal government provided money through the Solid Waste

Disposal Act of 1965 for projects to come up with new ways to take care of

solid wastes. Refuse activities moved to the Environmental Protection Agency

(EPA) in 1970, forcing many states to become more involved in waste issues and

to shift local priorities in money and management to meet federal standards.

In the 1970s metropolitan expansion blurred distinctions between core areas and

suburbs. This made urban problems including sanitation more complex, expensive,

and difficult to resolve. Concern over “infrastructure decay” raised

environmental issues, since pollution and public health were tied together, and

preserving sanitation systems touched directly upon controlling pollution.

Regulations, social issues, the emergence of ecology as a distinct scientific

discipline, and concerns over infrastructural decay compelled engineers in the

1970s to incorporate environmental objectives in the design, construction, and

operation of industrial facilities and public works projects. Melosi contends

that this signified a shift from trying to conquer nature to cooperation with

it in the “design of human society” (p. 371).

Many experts felt, however, that water supply and wastewater networks were not

in as bad shape as other elements of the urban infrastructure, even though some

water supply arrangements suffered from massive leaks, poor maintenance, and

failing pipes. Many communities subsequently found that gasoline leaks,

irrigation return, abandoned oil wells, cracked pipelines, and irresponsible

waste disposal had contaminated their groundwater supplies. Congress passed the

Water Quality Improvement Act in 1970 to deal with this. The 1972 Federal Water

Pollution Control Act put Washington in a place of leadership addressing the

matter of water pollution through “point-source” contamination (discharge)

rather than specifying ambient (in-stream) water standards.

In the last chapter Melosi deals with the contemporary “garbage crisis” (p.

396), a label for a complicated set of issues about rubbish disposal. The

landfill became the symbol of this situation. Studies found that leeching

chemicals, methane production, unpleasant odors and traffic, and few available

sites, fed the public’s sense of danger ahead. This led to a renewed interest

in incineration, though uncertainty remained about whether or not to burn waste

to reduce volume or mainly to produce steam for electricity. The latter found

legal help in the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA) of 1979, which

guaranteed a market for electricity so produced. Melosi surveys a bewildering

array of government agencies, acronyms, and statutes dealing with waste

disposal, confirming his belief that waste disposal has finally achieved parity

in importance with fresh water supply and sewerage as an important aspect of

public works.

This award-winning book is interesting to read, organized around easily

followed themes, and broad in scope. Ancillary developments such as technical

advances, shifting state-federal government relations and expectations, and the

effects of war and economic cycles, appear in the narrative at appropriate

places in the depth and detail that reflects their historical roles. Melosi

includes maps, photographs, and charts, which clarify the text. Readers will

benefit from a detailed index, list of abbreviations, and a bibliographical

essay that students and scholars involved in related projects will find quite

valuable. Notes at the back have headers showing to which pages the notes

correspond, a great convenience when searching for an elusive reference.

The last third of Melosi’s work contributes to the historiography of modernity,

in that it documents and explains the bureaucratization of society and private

life through public sanitation issues. It shows how the federal government has

progressively extended its legal power over fundamental local services such as

water supply, sewer disposal, and waste management. This embraces sensitive and

fundamental political matters including land use, housing construction, and a

host of activities that touch upon or contribute to air pollution, water

contamination, and environmental maintenance. Imagine your surprise to learn

that you must tear down part of your home because you built it over what has

been deemed to be a wetland, or that your farm runoff spills pesticides in

public waterways, saddling you with financially staggering penalties and fines.

Yet, how does society deal with interstate trucking of caustic wastes and

deadly toxic liquids to be dumped at night in remote forests, mud flats, and

obscure streams that are parts of widespread drainage, river, and fresh water


My criticisms are brief. I looked for but did not find much about municipal

police powers (regulation and promotion of public health and welfare), which

were the legal foundation of efforts to provide pure water, dispose of sewage,

and find a home for rubbish. However, readers can turn to William Novak’s

The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America

(UNC Press, 1996) for an admirable, scholarly survey of this issue. Otherwise,

Melosi’s book is a great accomplishment, a rich source of factual and

interpretative material, and a tribute to a life of productive scholarship.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII