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]