croton aqueduct

Etching of the Croton aqueduct, New York | Samuel Hollyers / CC BY 4.0 DEED

Some bakers claim that if there’s one thing more New York than a bagel, it’s the water used to make that bagel. In fact, NYC water has little calcium and is slightly alkaline, two processes that do not “strengthen the gluten in the dough” and slow down “the activity of the yeast.” Yet even the Department of Environmental Protection has embraced the myth, boasting in 2018 subway posters, “Yeah, it’s the water. NYC bagels aren’t NYC bagels without NYC water.” So if the city’s water is a point of pride, why aren’t more New Yorkers drinking it?

A poster on a subway  Description automatically generated
Department of Environmental Protection ad on subway

Choice in drinking water in New York is shaped by many factors. Beyond tap water, New Yorkers have access to bottled water, filters, and carbonation machines; what type of water they prefer is influenced by race, ethnicity, and sometimes religion. Some water coolers are managed collectively at the workplace. How water is consumed is also affected by mega-events and their aftermath, such as 9/11.

Although one would expect to have plenty of publicly available data about how New York’s residents drink water, the data is remarkably scarce. A 2009 study indicates that about a third drink bottled water, another third drink filtered tap water, and the rest direct tap water. More recent data that I collected in 2020 indicate some differences articulated around race, borough, class, and education. Only a minority—some 20–21 percent—of New Yorkers drink straight tap at home. Manhattanites drink more tap water than the other boroughs. Most New Yorkers drink filtered water (30–31 percent), followed by bottled water (22–23 percent). About three-quarters of New Yorkers are “purists” who feel strongly about one type of water. The remaining quarter are flexible, using different combinations of tap, filtered and bottled, thus challenging the either-or characterizations of water drinkers. The choices are even more complex if one considers out-of-home habits. As one interviewee explained, “I drink tap water when I am at home, I get a bottle with me to get to my job, and there I drink from the water cooler.” 

New York City’s white population drinks more tap water than other racial groups. The Black population drinks more bottled water, and less straight tap and filtered water. The Asian population is clearly over-represented in filtered (and, as I learned anecdotally, boiled) water consumption, with seven in ten Asian residents filtering, compared with five in ten across the whole city. There is a slight tendency in non-college-educated residents to drink more bottled water than college-educated ones, suggesting a historical inversion compared to a few decades ago. Writing of the 1980s and 1990s, Matthew Gandy found that “a degraded public water supply system now operates in combination with increasing access to private sources of drinking water by the better-off, in a dangerous reversion to nineteenth-century patterns of service provision. The increasing use of bottled water by the rich also presents a bizarre inversion of the contemporary picture in developing countries, where the poor rely on expensive water vendors whereas the middle classes are connected to cheaper sources of piped water.” 

Studies of water infrastructure focus, predictably, on the availability of tap, its quality, and its expansion inside cities and out into the watershed. Studies of bottled water consumption, however, rarely historicize non-tap water consumption, focusing on late modernity extraction of profit through water commodification, facilitated by advances in light plastic technologies

Browsing nineteenth-century daily newspapers, I was surprised to learn that water filters were used before and after the inception of the Croton Aqueduct system in 1842. While some were simple sleeves, other filters were quite similar to the current day charcoal filters, the most common form of filters in urban homes. An 1846 ad mentioned that “patent diaphragm filters” made of “artificial stone “will last for years, and are afforded at $3, $4 and $5 each … for purification of the Croton and all River waters.” 

Some turn-of-the-century, high-end restaurants, like their contemporary counterparts, noted on their menus that they used filtered water. In 1900, Hotel Netherland (1893–1927, located at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street) specified that “all the drinking water used in these premises is filtered by the Buhring system.” Prior to the 1920s spread of domestic refrigerators, water filters were used by local manufacturers of ice supplied households and restaurants, especially because of the pollution of underground water in the city. Knickerbocker Ice Company in Brooklyn explained that it “creates its ice from the purest water supply, in ice plants that are models of cleanliness—and filters the water four times.” Water coolers also existed since the early 1900s, as did five gallon water jugs made of glass, instead of their current incarnation in hard plastic.
1901 ad for a variety of water filters

Bottled water, too, needs to be historicized beyond the 1980s. Writing of growing up a couple of blocks from Central Park in the 1960s, water scholar Peter Gleick notes that “I never saw bottled water when I was a child. My friends, family, and acquaintances all drank tap water without a second thought. I drank from the faucet, public school drinking fountains, Central Park bubbling fountains in the playgrounds, even an occasional fire hydrant opened up on a hot summer day.” The mid-twentieth century was, indeed, a period of declining bottled water use in the city. Yet Gleick’s experience hides earlier cycles when bottled water was widely used. Because of waterborne diseases, hydropathy, and sumptuary consumption, both local, state, and imported bottled water were part of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stories of drinking water in New York. 

The histories of both tap water and bottled water usage in New York are stories of expanding scale from local surface and underground water in the city, to upstate sources. While continuing to use local underground water past the inception of Croton Aqueduct (in 1908 there was a bottled water facility on First Avenue in Manhattan), the use of bottled water continued to expand, through the importing of mineral waters from other parts of the country, and from Europe. Yet, like today, the “pattern of expensive imported versus inexpensive domestic waters is illusory,” as Robert C. Leavitt writes. In early twentieth-century New York, both the most expensive and least expensive quarts of bottled water were imported. Domestic water, from Virginia, occupied the middle tier. 

At the turn of the century, in 1904, one bottled water merchant from New York City sold 80 brands of imported bottled water (about half from Germany), as opposed to 53 domestic brands. Currently, data indicate a decline of in-state producers, a decline of imported bottled water, and an increased presence of bottled water producers from the rest of the United States. What the data don’t show is that beverage conglomerates acquire numerous smaller brands. Nestle, for example, owns multiple brands, including Polar Spring, Deer Park Spring Water, Ice Mountain, among others—as well as international imported brands.
Bottled water producers certified by New York State. Author image, based on NY State data

Bottled water consumption is further complicated by the transnational character of the city. As a global city and site of super-diversity, NYC is a global and super-diverse marketplace of bottled water. Inspecting the bottled water shelves in many parts of the city, I found water imported from Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Poland, Iceland, New Zealand, Spain, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Albania, Greece, Portugal, and Bulgaria. While some brands have global status, originating from countries with longstanding bottled water export traditions (for example, Evian) and some others are particularly sought after in the US (like  Fiji), another category is what might be called “transnational” bottled water, whereby immigrant communities congregate around brands imported from their countries. For instance, in 2010 Nestle opened a bottled water store in Hunts Point, “because it is a brand with a strong hold on Latin and Caribbean markets, where … many Hunts Point residents were born [and] where water retail stores are thriving.”
Polish bottled water in Greenpoint

One (still standing) Polish market in Greenpoint carries Polish brands in addition to Polar Spring (pictured above), while Euromarket in Astoria (where the Greek community is being replaced and augmented by South-East European immigrants) carries brands from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey, Croatia, Greece, Albania, and Romania. Other examples include Moscow on the Hudson market for immigrants from the former USSR (carrying waters from Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia), or the Parrot Coffee Grocery in Sunnyside, Queens, which supplies mineral water catering to Romanian, Bulgarian and Turkish locals.
Waters from Albania, Croatia and Serbia, sold in Astoria

Similarly, bottled water may reflect neighborhood attachment to particular delis, as is the case with the high-end Grace’s deli on the Upper East Side, which sells its own water. I suspect that even the hard plastic five-gallon jugs may create their own marketplace communities, as one can discern from the reviews of water delivery companies: “In a time of automation, it’s refreshing to call a business, talk to a real person, and have them be super helpful! Big shout out to Korrey for being so responsive and helping rearrange deliveries.” Such framings and connections hint at the possibility of community in the marketplace of waters. 

One is used to seeing New York City as a place of endless change. The kinetic energy of the city and the ways capital destroys and creates new places leave little room to pay attention to what stays the same. With the exception of the plastic revolution in bottled and filtering technologies, both filters and bottled water have coexisted—sometimes more peacefully and sometimes in direct confrontation—with tap water since 1842. The three forms of water distribution form a fluid archive of community formation, civic pride, and the many different possible ways New Yorkers can choose the water they drink.

All images are supplied courtesy of the author, except where noted otherwise.