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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 357-359

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Book Review

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

The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. By Martin V. Melosi. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. xii+578. $59.95.

Martin Melosi's The Sanitary City is a substantial work of scholarship that provides a highly useful history of the development and consequences of urban water, sewer, and solid waste infrastructure in the United States. Extensively referenced, heavily illustrated, and well written, it should be a standard on the subject for many years.

Readers of Technology and Culture will find a great deal to like about The Sanitary City, particularly in the sections covering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when engineers were the protagonists in the drama of epidemic disease and death that was played out in American cities. Melosi is careful to put that history in the context of European technology, [End Page 357] especially British precedents for American improvements in sewerage. However, this book overall is less history of technology than urban history, as the author knits together strands from demographic, social, political, medical, and scientific as well as technological history.

The general framework is a familiar one: how concerns about, and a deepening understanding of, the effects of disease, filth, and environmental pollution over the last two centuries have led to the corresponding adoption of piped water-supply systems, comprehensive sewerage, and systematic waste collection and disposal as standard urban amenities. Melosi's primary contributions to this master narrative are in describing how each generation has shifted its gaze to a new sanitary problem and what those shifts have implied for social investment. Numerous tables and graphs reinforce significant points along the way.

One can have few reservations about such a stellar performance, but it does have its limits. As the book progresses chronologically, it shifts ineluctably from a focus on decision making and implementation in the cities themselves to a focus on federal programs and policies. Melosi apparently believes that national water-quality standards, pollution legislation, and interstate concerns about waste disposal have for the last several decades set the criteria for sanitary conditions in American cities. A consideration of the differing needs, interests, and outlook of citizens in New York City, Chicago, Miami, Phoenix, and Los Angeles regarding water supply and waste disposal is diminished as attention centers on the growing federal involvement.

Like so many books from Johns Hopkins University Press, The Sanitary City is heavily illustrated with photographs, sketches, maps, and diagrams. A bibliographic list of sources will make the originals easy to locate. In the text, however, many of the illustrations lack identification either by date or location, or both, and some captions are inadequate or misleading. Two illustrations showing Chicago water sources in the 1830s (pp. 28, 30) must be viewed skeptically because they are apparently a later artist's renderings. The considerable effort required to gather the illustrations and integrate them with the text is not well served by whatever editorial decision precipitated these shortcomings.

Finally, there are two minor but, for this reviewer, nagging scholarly problems with The Sanitary City. First, it opens with a review of three social science theories that are supposed to "inform" the book. Although the theories are well presented and arguably appropriate, they are hardly sustained throughout. This disjuncture does not harm the value of the book, but one's expectations of encountering an internal dialogue between theory and history are not fulfilled. Second, The Sanitary City is not founded on research in manuscript sources, or on full studies of particular cities. Perforce, readers may find that the author is not well versed in specifics; as [End Page 358] a case in point, this reviewer found the early history of the Philadelphia Waterworks to be muddled.

But details, details: The Sanitary City is a substantial achievement and has much to offer anyone who wants to know more about how cities in the United States were...


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