Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works

Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works, 1821, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 76.3 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), a Seeing America video Speakers: Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dr. Steven Zucker

Additional resources
This painting at PAFA

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, looking at a canvas by Thomas Birch titled “Fairmount Water Works.”

Dr. Anna O. Marley: [0:14] The Fairmount Water Works was the number-one tourist destination in the United States until it was supplanted by Niagara Falls in the 1840s.

Dr. Zucker: [0:25] But Niagara Falls is dramatic. It’s sublime and it’s enormous. This is beautiful. It’s picturesque. It’s quiet, it’s calm.

Dr. Marley: [0:34] This scene, unlike Niagara Falls, shows what Americans could do with nature. They are harnessing nature and they’re using it to create a modern, salubrious, healthy, beautiful, civilized city, the city of Philadelphia.

Dr. Zucker: [0:51] This is man gently making nature useful. This was one of the highest ideals of the early 19th century.

Dr. Marley: [1:00] Many Americans were connected with rivers, trade, and canal building. George Washington, for example, was invested in building canals outside Washington, D.C.

[1:12] Likewise, Philadelphians were involved in building the Schuylkill River Canal so that boats like this steamboat could make it all the way up past what was previously the Schuylkill River Falls and make the Schuylkill River navigable.

[1:29] Of course, now we think of it as a beautiful place for rowing, but it didn’t become that picturesque river until it was dammed and the Fairmont Water Works was developed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Philadelphia was a young, vibrant, growing city, but in the 18th century it was a city that depended on wells for its drinking water. And by the end of the 18th century, there wasn’t enough water to fight fires. And in 1793 there was an outbreak of yellow fever.

Dr. Marley: [1:58] Which they believed was caused by unclean water. We know now that yellow fever is actually caused by mosquitoes. So this group called the Watering Committee develops in the city of Philadelphia, and they built the first pump-house at Center Square.

[2:14] It works for about 12 years or so, and the Watering Committee becomes aware that they need to build a more up-to-date structure to get clean water for everybody in the city of Philadelphia.

[2:29] That’s when Graff works to develop the new Fairmont Water Works, which is at a location a little north from the city along the Schuylkill River, right by what is now the beginning of Fairmont Park.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] This will ultimately provide the city with clean water for nearly a hundred years.

Dr. Marley: [2:47] The Water Works was known as one of the modern wonders of the world. People from all over the world came to visit the Water Works.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] Look at the architectural style that Graff chooses. It’s neoclassicism. He’s referring to this ideal architecture of the ancient world, which was associated with a moral well-being, with a moral elevation. And so even the physical manifestation of the Water Works was meant to be inspiring.

Dr. Marley: [3:13] In this period, Philadelphia was known as the Athens of America, and the people who lived in Philadelphia pursued that connection with their use of neoclassical architectural forms. In the foreground, you see the most modern industry, the steam engine, propelling this steamship forward.

[3:30] It’s about to go into the locks, and this modern engineering marvel of the canal is going to take this great modern boat up and then go along its picturesque journey along the winding Schuylkill River.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] The Water Works were ingenious. The idea was to take water that was flowing downstream, [and] divert it into the Water Works, which would do two things. It would provide water for a reservoir that’s not seen in this painting that would’ve been just at the top of the rocks at the extreme right, at the present location of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[4:03] But it was also powered by that water. Huge water wheels provided the energy to push that water uphill, which could then be gravity-fed to the city below. And so this painting really is a celebration of man’s ability to harness the power and the beauty of nature.

Dr. Marley: [4:19] Before New York becomes the Empire State, after the completion of another canal — the Erie Canal in 1825, which links the Atlantic, the Hudson, and the Great Lakes region — Philadelphia is really the centerpiece of the new republic of the United States.

[4:36] Many people don’t realize that this image of the Schuylkill traveled all over the world, and that Birch’s painting was used as a model for prints, which were then distributed around the world and collected. And then those prints were used for hand-painted porcelain made in China in the 1820s, as well as transferware made in Great Britain in the 1820s and ’30s.

[5:00] It is this image of America that people first see when they think of the early republican US. We tend to think of the Hudson River School being the first landscape tradition in the United States, but this image of this more picturesque, domesticated landscape, this Philadelphia landscape, was the first international view of the United States.

[5:25] Thomas Cole, who is the father of the Hudson River School, when he saw this painting on view at PAFA in 1824, said that he felt his heart sink as he felt his deficiencies in art. So to have the father of the Hudson River School say that his heart sank when he looked at this painting, I think is a pretty good testament to the skills of Thomas Birch.

[5:47] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Anna O. Marley and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works," in Smarthistory, February 29, 2020, accessed April 18, 2024,