J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

How John Howland Fetched Water “with two pails and a hoop”

In April 1770, at age thirteen, John Howland sailed from Newport to Providence to become an apprentice to barber Benjamin Gladding.

Apprentices, especially those who had barely begun their training, were required to do household chores. Because of the neighborhood where Gladding lived, one of those chores was especially tiring, as Howland recalled:

the water in all the wells between where the Arcade now stands and the great bridge was brackish, and the water for tea and washing was brought from the east side of the river from a pump on the Fenner estate, north of the “granite block” and the old “Coffee House.” Some of the families had rain water cisterns for their chief supply; but these were few, and it fell to the lot of the boys, some of whom were negroes, for slavery was then in fashion, to go with two pails and a hoop, across the bridge for a supply.

This was the hardest service I had yet experienced. There were so many families to be supplied, that we frequently met four or five boys at the pump at the same time, and we proceeded in procession with our pails across the bridge. On the evening before washing day the process was so often repeated that the labor was exhausting. I was one of the smallest boys, and never very stout; and while I am writing this, I seem to feel the same stretch of the joints of the elbows and shoulders, and sympathy in the back, which I then experienced.

The next year, 1771, the water-logs were laid from Field’s fountain to Weybosset bridge, to the great joy of all the boys on Weybosset Point. A few years after, as more buildings began to be erected, a contract was made with Amos Atwell to sink a fountain near Rawson’s tanyard, and lay the pipes through a narrow valley, to a place where Aborn street now is. These pipes were after extended to the old long wharf.
The water pipes were of course a great technological step forward. But I was also struck by another bit of technology Howland mentioned in passing: “two pails and a hoop.” I was familiar with how people carried matching pails or buckets on a wooden yoke carved for their shoulders (and not useful for anything else), but how was a hoop involved?

I found the answer in A Small Boy in the Sixties, a memoir written by George Sturt, born in Surrey, England, in 1863, and published by the Cambridge University Press shortly after his death in 1927.
In passing, notice should be taken of the proper way of carrying water or milk in a pail. In fact it is rather easier to carry two pails than one, for the sake of balance; but in either case it is well to have something to keep the pail from knocking against your knee and splashing you. In my childhood people used a girl’s wooden hoop for this. . . . A hoop laid on two pails (between the handles of them) did not add appreciably to the weight, and, keeping them apart, made a space to walk in. Nothing could be more convenient.
An 1895 report from the Smithsonian Institution stated, “It is a common thing in the country to see the boys and women using a hogshead hoop as a spreader.” An article in the London Mechanics’ Register of 1825 describes a similar arrangement, adding a rope draped around the carrier’s shoulders. The photo above is said to have been taken in Cornwall.

2 comments:

Laura Orabone said...

Very interesting! I've never heard of this before. But I'm not understanding how the hoop was laid between the handles of the pails. I think I need a diagram drawn for me, from above. ;) Maybe I'm just overthinking this (fairly typical of me).

J. L. Bell said...

The photograph helped me figure this out. I believe the girl placed the two pails about a yard apart—the distance between their centers being the diameter of the hoop and the pail handles being perpendicular to the line between them. Then she rested the hoop horizontally on top of the pails, leaving their handles just outside the hoop. She stepped into the hoop, grabbed the pail handles, and stood up.

That action creates a system in equilibrium. The pails are pulling down on her arms and trying to move them closer to her body, but the hoop presses back against the pail handles and holds them apart. The pressure of the pails on the hoop holds it in midair, so the girl doesn't touch it. She has enough space within the hoop to walk, and the pails don't bang on her legs.

Maybe we should ask a small child to test out this equipment at an event this summer, when the weather's better.