The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York

New York’s love of tea began in the 17th century, when the Dutch imported it to the colony.

By the time the British took over, tea-drinking had become an ingrained social custom, especially for ladies, according to New York City: A Food Biography.

There was one problem though: finding fresh, clean water for brewing the tea.

In the 18th century, residents got their drinking water from “wooden pumps set commonly at street corners, at intervals of about four blocks,” wrote Charles Haswell in his 1896 book, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian of the City of New York.

The pumps drew water from underground springs, but what came out tended to be distasteful and brackish. (It’s part of the reason people in the colonial city also developed a taste for beer, Madeira wine, and spirits.)

Luckily for the ten thousand or so city residents at the time, a couple of the street corner pumps actually produced high-quality, refreshing water.

These special pumps became known as “tea water pumps” because the water that came out of them made high-quality tea.

Perhaps the most famous tea water pump was at Chatham and Roosevelt Streets.

Here “stood the celebrated Tea Water Pump, of which it was alleged by the housekeepers who drew from it, that it made better tea than any other water; it was supplied by a spring from the hill of sand leading up to the juncture of Harmon Street (East Broadway) and the Bowery,” wrote Haswell.

Another legendary tea water pump was in today’s Nolita/Chinatown area, according to one tea website.

“Sometime during the first half of the 1700s, a spring of fresh water between Baxter and Mulberry Streets began to attract popular attention,” states the site.

Yet another was found on the West Side, either at Bethune Street or 10th Avenue and 14th Street, depending on the source. This one was “owned by a Mr. Knapp, who distributed its products from carts at 2 cents a pail,” stated Haswell.

Selling the tea water from these choice street corner pumps by wagon via “tea water men” became big business, as seen in the above painting depicting an 18th century residential street.

“Tea water! Tea water! Come out and get your tea water!” was the cry heard on the street by the vendor, according to the 1935 guide All About Tea.

By 1774, an estimated 3,000 households bought their water this way, according to New York City: a Food Biography.

At the turn of the 19th century, though, even the tea water pump wells were becoming polluted, especially those closest to Collect Pond, now a stinking cesspool polluted by industry.

New York’s love of tea wasn’t going to taper off; tea gardens had even opened up with views of the Hudson for refined ladies and gentlemen. Clearly, a new source of reliably fresh water would be necessary.

These New-York Historical Society images dated 1898 show children posing by old wooden corner street pumps, at left on Trinity Place and on the right on Edgar Street.

[Top image: NYPL; second image: NYPL; third image: Metmuseum.org; fourth and fifth images: New-York Historical Society]

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9 Responses to “The famous tea water pumps of 1700s New York”

  1. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    I suppose that by the 1900s tea water pumps had pretty much disappeared. Who would want a filthy mug of water? Ugh!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    What’s amazing to me is that early water fountains had a communal cup chained to the fountain for anyone to sip from. Yikes.

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    The Tea Water Pump was legendary because of its location, its role as a social center, and it being a source of filthy and disease-spreading water.

  4. Ali Says:

    Just like the water cooler!

  5. Is this the city’s oldest Croton manhole cover? | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted. […]

  6. Is this the city's oldest Croton manhole cover? | Real Estate Investing Says:

    […] Before Croton opened, most residents relied on street corner “tea water” pumps, which were often polluted. […]

  7. How New York became a metropolis of stoops | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan […]

  8. The Central Park spring that provided water for a forgotten village | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] pre-Croton New York, the many streams across Manhattan were vital, and Seneca Village wouldn’t have thrived without this one. Even after the Croton […]

  9. Harris C McGuire Says:

    How very interesting it would be, if city government were to somehow agree to reestablish one or two (more?)of the original locations of the tea water pumps, meaning the “best of the best”, in terms of the chosen locations. Restored in these very specific locations and in such a way, that they would be so completely visable to the wider public, that vandalism and abuse could be kept to a minimal level. Perhaps the sources that they originally pulled water from
    might be reclaimed/rectified in such a way that the water
    was once again potable and safe. Wouldn’t that be something special and historically significant. Either that, or drill downward for some distance in an attempt to reach a water table offering purer, cleaner sources of clean (well)
    water. I doubt that wooden pumps would ever be acceptable, so some other historically accurate(?), but exceptionally durable frame could be substituted. A bronze
    plaque marker firmly attached to a nearby building telling the story in brief, would be nice. I live in a city that has it’s share of serious crime, vandalism, abuse of public property, and all the rest. But there are several pieces of full dimension public bronze expressional realist public art on all 4 corners of each principle intersection, for several blocks in the downtown core area. One of which is a button-down business guy who has decided to remove his shoes and socks, pull up his pant legs, and cool his feet in a 6 inch “crack in the sidewalk” fountain coming up out of the concrete. Actual water (obviously not in winter). His bronze briefcase is firmly bolted to the concrete , next to the bronze bus bench, both as art and actual bench. I’m sure the all the statuary art suffers from whatever it is that our own idiots and morons inflict on it, but it’s all held up pretty well I think, because it is so very public right at
    curbside. Perhaps the restoration of a very select few of fully-functional tea water pumps, in the most visable pubic locations, made from bank-vault steel and welded to the concrete, might be something to think about. Yes, I am serious about this concept.

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