Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Lead Pipe

Lead Pipe in American Waterworks

Lead pipes were used in Roman, Medieval and English water works.  In America they were first installed in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1786 and were almost universally used as service pipes into individual buildings.  Many small systems built in in the 1820s and 1830s also had lead main pipes. 

Lead pipes were originally made by rolling a sheet of lead into a pipe and soldering the joint, but in the 1820s several methods were used to make lead pipe in continuous rolls.

The Romans knew that lead pipes could result in lead poisoning, and many cases of this were known in the 1800s, but these pipes were used through late in the 20th Century and continue to cause problems.

In 1836, the Rev Dr. Alvan Lamson, a distinguished local cleric in Dedham, Massachusetts, was poisoning by water from the newly installed lead aqueduct..

The engineer Albert Stein, owner of the Mobile Water Works, was tried and convicted in 1860 of providing "poisoned water" due to the use of lead pipes, but the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Alabama in 1861, finding that he had no intent to poison anyone.

Ezra Cornell patent for automatic lead pipe trenching machine.


1772 "Further Observations on the Poison of Lead" by George Baker, M.D., Paper XX, Read at the College, December 11, 1771, Medical Transactions of the Royal College of Physicians 2:419-470 (1772)

1803  Researches into the properties of spring water with medical cautions (illustrated by cases) against the use of lead in the construction of pumps, water-pipes, cisterns, &c, by William Lambe, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

1803 New-England Palladium (Boston), June 17, 1803, Page 4.
Dr. Lambe, of London, has lately published "Medical cautions against the use of water in lead pipes, pumps, cisterns," &c.  The New-York Aqueduct Corporation supply the Citizens with water through leaden pipes, and Dr. L's. publication has, or course, attracted some attention in that city.

1803 David Lownes, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Patent #474X for pipes, leaden and others, secured from frost, July 21, 1803.

1808 Williard Badger, Boston, Massachusetts, Patent #968X, mode of casting pipes or tubes, December 26, 1808.  No additional information on this patent has been found, including the pipe material.   

1809 "Sur la ténacité des métaux ductiles, les changemens de densité du plomb par les procédés d'écrouissement, et l'action que l'eau distillée exerce sue ce métal," by M. Guyton-Morveau, Annales de Chimie, 71:189-199 (July 31, 1809)

1814 Alpheus Todd, Orford, New Hampshire, Patent #2,106X for making lead pipes, April 18, 1814.  Note patent office publications have him from Oxford, instead of Orford.

1818 Cyrus Eastman, Hillsborough, New Hampshire, Patent #2,942X for machine for drawing metallic tubes, April 16, 1818.

1820 "Lead Pipe," Hartford Courant, August 15, 1820, Page 3. Joseph Fairbank and Earl Jepherson, Enfield, Connecticut

1821 "Lead Aqueducts," Hartford Courant, June 26, 1821, Page 4.  Richard Ward, of Waterbury.

1821 Thomas B. Robbins, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Patent # 3,309X for making aqueduct pipes,  March 19, 1821.  Robbins died on July 7, 1826, age 53.  No other information on this patent has been found, including the pipe material.

1822 "Lead Pipes for Aqueducts," Hartford Courant, April 30, 1822, Page 3.  Thomas K. Brace & Co., Hartford.

1822 Richard Ward, Waterbury, Connecticut, Patent #3,549X for leaden pipes for aqueducts, July 5, 1822.

1823 "Patent Lead Aqueducts," Hartford Courant, September 30, 1823, Page 4.  Charles Sigourney & Co., Agents for the Manufacturers.

1826 "Lead Pipe," Hartford Courant, August 7, 1826, Page 3.
Patent lead aqueduct pipe, Manufactured by the Shaker Village, Enfield, for sale in quantities to suit purchasers, by William H. Implay & Co.

1828 Theophilus Packard, Shelburn, Franklin County, Massachusetts, Patent #5,090X for process of testing leaden pipes for conveying water, April 29, 1828.

1829 "Of poisoning with lead," A Treatise on Poisons: In Relation to Medical Jurisprudence, Physiology, and the Practice of Physic, by Sir Robert Christison

1829 A History of the County of Berkshire, Massachusetts, in Two Parts: The First Being a General View of the County; the Second, an Account of the Several Towns, by Chester A. Dewey and David Dudley Field.
Pages 33-34:  The construction of aqueducts of wooden or earthen pipes, has been found too unprofitable in this County to be deserving of repetition, except on a very small scale. The strength of the materials is not sufficient to endure the pressure of the water, when carried to any considerable distance, even if they be laid so low as to escape the influence of frost, a point rarely effected. The resort must be to pipes of lead or cast iron. The lead pipes are now made in Adams for this purpose; and the employment of them is becoming relatively common. The only disadvantage of these pipes, is the formation of a small quantity of carbonate of lead, Which may act as a poison upon those who use the water conveyed in them, unless there be provision for the deposition of this poison in a reservoir. Iron pipes are entirely free from this evil. In the celebrated Water-Works at Philadelphia, only pipes of cast iron are used; and are considered on the whole as the cheapest.

1830 Connecticut Courant, March 23, 1830, Page 1.
Aqueduct Pipes.  The subscribers are commencing the manufacture of Leaden Aqueduct Pipes at the works of Isaac & Geo. C. Kellogg, New-Hartford.

1839 "Notices of the Effects of Lead Upon the System," by James Alderson, M.A. & M.D., Read January 8, 1839, Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, 22:82-94 (1839)

1841 George N. Tatham and Benjamin Tatham, Jr., patent for machine for making pipes or tubes of lead, No. 2,296, October 11, 1841.

1843 James E. Serrell, New York, N. Y., Machinery and process of manufacturing pipes, No, 2, 918, January 20, 1843.  Used tin to make pipes, see

1843 "Valuable Improvement," The Evening Post, May 19, 1843, Page 4.  James E. Serrell's tin pipe, examined and endorsed by Samuel F. B. Morse.

1843 "Croton Water Block Tin Pipes," New York Evening Post, August 7, 1843, Page 4.  Manufactured by James E. Serrell.

1845 "Of poisoning with lead," A Treatise on Poisons: In Relation to Medical Jurisprudence, Physiology, and the Practice of Physic, First American, from the Fourth Edinburgh Edition, by Sir Robert Christison

1845 George H. Tatham and others v. David Loring, 5 N.Y. Leg. Obs. 207, May Term, 1845, Circuit Court, District of Massachusetts | Also here |

1848 Report of the Water Commissioners on the Material Best Adapted for Distribution Water Pipes: And on the Most Economical Mode of Introducing Water in Private Houses

1848 Lead Diseases: a Treatise from the French of L. Tanquerel Des Planches: With Notes and Additions on the Use of Lead Pipe and Its Substitutes, Louis Tanquerel des Planches

1849 Service-pipes for water : an investigation made at the suggestion of the Board of Consulting Physicians of Boston / E.N. Horsford ; from the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Cambridge [Mass.] : Metcalf and Co., 1849 --

1850 "Special Report on Lead Poisoning in the City of New Orleans," by Erasmus Darwin Fenner, Southern Medical Reports 2:247-280.

1850 Wiliam P. Tatham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, patent for manufacture of lead pipe, No. 7,624, September 3, 1850.

1852 "On the Action of Water on Lead Pipes, and the Diseases Proceeding from it," by Horatio Adams, M.D., of Waltham, Mass. from The Transactions of the American Medical Association, 5:163-236 (1852)

1852 "Critical Analysis," The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 77:153-199. Review of several works on lead poisoning.

1852 Le Roy v. Tatham, 55 U.S. 156, (1852).  Lead pipe manufacturing patent infringement case. | earlier case here |

1852 Some observations on the contamination of water by the poison of lead : and its effects on the human body : together with remarks on some other modes in which lead may be injurious in domestic life, by James Bower Harrison

1859 "On the action of hard waters upon lead," by W. Lauder Lindsay, M.D., F.L.S., The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 9 N.S.:245:258 (July-October. 1859)

1859 "On the action of hard waters upon lead (concluded)," by W. Lauder Lindsay, M.D., F.L.S., The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, 10 N.S.:8-25 (July-October. 1859)

1859 Collection of reports (condensed) and opinions of chemists in regard to the use of lead pipe for service pipe: in the distribution of water for the supply of cities, by James Pugh Kirkwood.

1861 Stein v. The State, 37 Ala. 123, Supreme Court of Alabama, February 28, 1861.

1861 "Fifty Prisoners in the County Jail Poisoned by Drinking Water Impregnated with Carbonate of Lead," The New York Times, August 30, 1861, Page 5.
On Tuesday night last, about twenty of the prisoners confined in the Kings County Jail, were seized with vomiting and purging, accompanied by other symptoms, indicating that they had partaken of some deadly poison. Dr. CHARLES A. VAN ZANDT, the Jail Physician, was at once sent for by the keepers and by judicious management succeeded in saving the lives of all attacked, numbering, up to yesterday, about 50 of the inmates of the jail. When Dr. VAN ZANDT examined the first case, he was considerable puzzled to know in what manner the prisoners had been poisoned, but after a while he arrived at the conclusion that it must have been from the Ridgewood water, with which the jail is supplied throughout, in the common lead pipe. Fortunately he hit upon the right cause and was able to neutralize the reflects of the poison. He at once ordered the Ridgewood water to be cut off, and directed that well water -- of which there is an abundance on the premises -- should be used.
Yesterday Dr. VAN ZANDT analyzed a small quantity of water which had passed through the lead pipes, and found it strongly impregnated with carbonate of lead. He will make a report to the Board of Supervisors, at the next meeting of that body, -- which will be on Tuesday, -- urging that the common lead pipe with which the jail is now furnished be removed, and a lined pipe substituted, to avoid a recurrence of a similar accident.
An attache of the jail, who did not believe that the prisoners had been poisoned by the water, in a spirit of bravado on Wednesday morning, drank plentifully of the water, not with standing the warnings of the attending physician. Before night he was seized with purging and vomiting, and suffered severely for his folly. His case, however, yielded under the same treatment as practiced in the other cases, and he, as well as all of the others poisoned, are now considered out of danger.

1872 "A Great Want Supplied," Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, May 21, 1872, Page 1.
A sanitary flexible metallic water pipe! 20 per cent cheaper than lead pipe.

1873 "The Water Pipe Question," Rochester Union & Advertiser, August 22, 1873, Page 2.  Composite Metal Pipes were patented in 1869 and widely advertised for a short time.  The material was a lower grade of Britannia metal.  Despite its claims, it was found to cause lead poisoning in Sacramento in 1872, which was reported in the Boston Journal of Science.

1881 On the action of water upon lead pipes, being a translation from the French of M. Belgrand, with introductory remarks by W. Sedgwick Saunders, M.D., F.S.A.

1883 History of the Town of Amherst, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire: (first Known as Narragansett Township Number Three, and Subsequently as Souhegan West) by David Franklin Secomb
Page 881-882:  Dea. Cyrus Eastman  Having an inventive genius he was constantly making experiments, and in 1815, or thereabout, devised a plan for making lead pipe, for which he obtained a patent, and engaged in its manufacture. In 1819 he went to New Orleans in the employ of a company who had a contract to furnish the city with water.  But the undertaking proved an unfortunate one, as most of the company sickened, and some died there.  The survivors returned home poorer but, perhaps, wiser men.  When Manchester began to be built up Mr. Eastman was one of a company to furnish the inhabitants with water by means of aqueducts.  He also furnished the pumps and pipes for the use of the railroad companies between Lowell and Franklin.  [Eastman probably went to Natchez rather than New Orleans, as the latter city used wooden logs to distribute water which were installed after Eastman had returned in New Hampshire.]

1885 "Is Lead as a Conduit for Water Detrimental to Health," by Joseph P. Gallagher, from Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National Association of Master Plumbers of the United States of America
See summary in The Sanitary News, 6(73):72 (June 27, 1885) "Is Lead As a Conduit for Water Detrimental to Health?" was discussed by the St. Louis association, in an essay read by Mr. Joseph P. Gallagher, the author. He thought that much anxiety and needless expense had been incurred, by persons of a nervous temperament, over the question, in the absence of any evidence that lead, as a conduit for water, was detrimental to health. He referred to the use of lead tor this purpose in ancient times, and in more recent periods. He then said: "We have found in all our experiments with lead as a conduit for water, that there are certain forms of organic matter found in the waters of rivers and springs which coat the inner surface of the lead with an insoluble film, of sufficient thickness to prevent the water being acted upon by the lead; we have found this film to be the same in hard and soft waters; we have found it so firmly attached to the pipe, and of such a thickness as to form an inner lining, and to require the pipe to be heated and thoroughly dried betore it could be removed.  We have frequently drawn pieces of perfect tubing, of from eight to twelve inches in length, thus leaving the inner surface of the pipe almost as bright as when first manufactured, thus showing conclusively that the water had not come in contact with the lead only a very short time after the pipes had been put in place. We have in our possession specimens of pipe that has been in use five, ten, seventeen and twenty-four years in this city. We put these pipes in with our own hands; we also removed them, therefore, there is no doubt as to the time of their use. We find the film, or inner lining, to have about the same thickness as all the specimens, notwithstanding the difference in the time they have been in use. We therefore have no hesitation in stating that, after more than thirty-five years of practical and experimental experience as a master plumber, we believe lead pipe to be the safest and best conduit for water that has yet been discovered.
"We regard lead as being the best, safest, and only material fit for a first class job of plumbing, which cannot be made first-class with any other material, for the following reasons: First, lead is a soft and pliable metal, and is easily and quickly put in place by a skillful workman. Second, it can be manufactured to stand any pressure, from the lightest to the very heaviest. Third, it will last longer than any other material known to the plumbing profession. Fourth, it is easily, quickly, and cheaply repaired, in case of bursting from frost, only requiring the removal of a small piece to put the work in thorough order, and at a trifling expense. Lead pipe is known to have been taken up, after having been in use two hundred years, and was found to be of the same weight as when placed in the ground; this case occurred in Paris, France, and a perfect record has been kept, thus showing the exact time the pipes were in use.  We should require legal protection from the quack plumber as well as from the quack doctor, the former being much more dangerous than the the quack doctor, nd to this end the master plumbers of the city of St. Louis used every honorable means to have an ordinance passed, to have practical plumbers appointed, to inspect and test all plumbing work in buildings and require the work to be done in accordance with the law governing the plumber as required by ordinance. This ordinance hardly had a hearing, and proved to be an abortive attempt on the part of the master plumbers, and was looked upon in the light that the plumbers were trying to get up a corner in their profession. Instead of this we were trying to inaugurate a thorough sanitary system of plumbing, and to the lasting disgrace of the city of St. Louis, this ordinance died before it was born.
"Lead is the only material that should be permitted to be used for any job of plumbing, placed in the hands of a first-class workman, who has learned his business in the United States, — we say the United States because our varied experience with the plumbers from all countries has long since taught us that the best plumbers, and the best plumbing work in the world is to be found this day upon the American continent."
Mr. Gallagher submitted the pieces of pipe, to which he referred, for examination.

1887 Water Works, A. H. Howland, Geo. A. Ellis, Engineers.
Page 138:  No authenticated case of lead poisoning from the use of lead service pipes has ever been recorded.

1888 "Memoir of David Loring," by E. H. Hoar, Memoirs of Members of the Social Circle in Concord: 2nd. ser., from 1795 to 1840.  (1800-1870)

1889 "Observations on the Occurrence of Lead in Boston Drinking-Water," by Edward M. Greene, New England Journal of Medicine, 121(22):533-534. (November 28, 1889)

1900 "A Very Brief Discussion of Lead Poisoning Caused by Water Which Has Been Drawn Through Lead Service Pipe," by Fayette C. Forbes, Superintendent, Brookline, Mass., Water Works, Read February 14, 1900.  Journal of the New England Water Works Association 15(1):58-62 (September, 1900)

1907 The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns, by Frank Preston Stearns.  Mr. Loring and lead pipe patent and manufacturing.

1918 "Selection of Material for Service Pipe - Advantages and Disadvantages of Galvanized, Lead, Lead-Lined and Cement-Lined Pipes," Municipal Journal 45:170-171 (August 31, 1918)

1920 "Lead Poisoning by Water, and Its Prevention," by Robert Spurr Weston, Read August 20, 1920, Journal of the New England Water Works Association 34(4):239-263 (December, 1920)

1921 "Discussion of R. S. Weston's Paper: 'Lead Poisoning by Water,'" By George C. Bunker, Journal of the New England Water Works Association 35(2):126-136 (June, 1921)

1965 "Lead Poisoning and the Fall of Rome," by S. C. Gilfillan, Journal of Occupational Medicine 7:53-60 (1965)

1973 "Lead Poisoning in the Ancient World," by H. A. Waldron, Medical History, 17(4):391-399 (October 1973)

1981 "Vitruvius, Lead Pipes and Lead Poisoning," by A. Trevor Hodge, American Journal of Archaeology, 85(4):486-491 (October, 1981)

1983 Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity, by Jerome O. Nriagu

1984 "Lead Poisoning: a historical overview," by A. S. Curran, New York State Journal of Medicine 84(9)437-438 (September 1984)

1984 "Review: The Myth of Lead Poisoning among the Romans: An Essay Review: Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity by Jerome O. Nriagu," by John Scarborough, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 39(4):469-475 (October 1984)

1996 Portrait of an Abolitionist: A Biography of George Luther Stearns, 1809-1867, Charles E. Heller
Page 36+: George H. Loring and Tathams lead pipe manufacturing. [This is almost certainly David Loring, not George H. Loring,]

2000 "Lead Poisoning in a Historical Perspective," by Sven Hernberg, M.D., PhD, American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38:244-254 (2000)

2006 The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster, by Werner Troesken.  | Also here (subscription required) |

2008 "The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes A MODEST CAMPAIGN'", by Richard Rabin, MSPH, American Journal of Public Health, 98(9):1584–1592. (September 2008)

2016 "Economic Consequences of Childhood Exposure to Environmental Toxins: A Case of Lead Service Pipes in Massachusetts," by Gisella Kagy, Vassar College (August 2016)

2017 "The Effect of an Increase in Lead in the Water System on Fertility and Birth Outcomes: The Case of Flint, Michigan," by Daniel Grossman and David Slusky

Also see the general bibliography page, which includes links to several lists of waterworks with information about pipes.

© 2016 Morris A. Pierce