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Tea Water Wells of Early New York

The tea drinking residents of 18th century Manhattan realized their tea was only as good as the water in which it was steeped. The water from dug wells in the lower part of Manhattan served well enough for ordinary domestic purposes, but was often brackish and disagreeable to taste.

Engraving of the Knapps water pump
Knapp's Tea-Water Pump in Lower Manhattan

Sometime during the first half of the 1700s, a spring of fresh water between Baxter and Mulberry streets began to attract popular attention. The water was so popular for the making of tea that it was known as the Tea Water Pump. It became a regular landmark and is shown on maps and referenced in real estate deeds of the time. Other tea water pumps were located on Chatham Street and at Knapp’s spring near Tenth Avenue and Fourteenth Street.

The first mention of the Tea Water Spring appeared in the diary of Professor Kalm, a learned and observant man who visited the City in 1748. He wrote,

There is no good water to be met within the town itself; but at a little distance there is a large spring of good water, which the inhabitants take for their tea and for the use of the kitchen.

Shortly before the Revolution, the Tea Water Spring and its vicinity were made into a fashionable resort. A high pump with a prodigiously long handle was erected over the spring, and the grounds around it were laid out in ornamental fashion. The popular retreat became known as Tea Water Pump Garden.

 

Map of Vauxhall Tea Garden in NYC
Vauxhall Tea Garden in lower Manhattan, c.1803

The tea water from this source was so popular that it was barreled and delivered around town in carts. The distributors of this water were called “tea watermen.” They would ply the streets and cry out “Tea water! Tea water! Come out and get your tea water!” These door-to-door sales carts became so numerous that they became an impediment to traffic until, on June 16, 1757, the Common Council passed “A Law for the Regulating of Tea Water Men in the City of New York.”

 

By 1797, the giant pump projecting over the sidewalk and into the street, along with the continuous queue of horse-drawn carts, caused such congestion that a petition for the abatement of the nuisance was presented to the City Council.

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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