Clean water for a young Philadelphia

Making nature useful, the 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

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Birch, Fairmount

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Key points

  • As Philadelphia grew, so did the need to secure clean sources of water. When it opened in 1815, the Fairmount Water Works was celebrated as an example of American ingenuity, harnessing the power of nature to create and support a modern, healthy, beautiful city.
  • Built in a Neoclassical style to evoke the grandeur and moral well-being associated with classical antiquity, the Fairmount Water Works was the most popular tourist destination in America until the 1840s. Prints and decorative objects featuring the Water Works were manufactured and circulated internationally, making it an iconic image widely associated with the early American republic.
  • Along with the Water Works, the Schuylkill canal made the river more navigable through a series of dams and locks. This was part of a series of canals, constructed in the early 19th century, that enabled trade and expansion within the interior of the United States.

Go deeper

Learn more about the history of Philadelphia

Learn how the construction of canals enabled American progress

Take the self-guided tour of the Fairmount Water Works

Read and watch a short video on the history of the Fairmount Water Works 

Read an 1820 report by the Watering Committee 

View photos and drawings of the Fairmount Water Works at the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey

View some decorative arts objects featuring the Fairmount Water Works

Pitcher with Dam and Water Works, Philadelphia

View a print copy of Birch’s painting

Short biography of Thomas Birch

More to think about

The video states that the Water Works were the number one tourist destination in the United States until supplanted by Niagara Falls. Are there tourist destinations in your area that are linked to technology? How would you compare them to the Water Works in function and appearance?