The splendour and misery of urban life

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City water under the Microscope
1870, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
22.9 x 22.9 cm
Gift of Mrs. G. M. Butler
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Miscellaneous (671) , Print (10661)
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Keys to History

This image from 1870, illustrating the noxious agents in the water in Montreal, was used in a campaign in favour of water filtration.

In Montreal, the quality of water was always suspect at the end of the 19th century. The only means of water purification provided by the municipal water supply system consisted of letting the water settle in huge reservoirs. More effective under such conditions, filtration removed heavy, coarse substances from the water and eliminated germs and microbes.

The early work by Pasteur on bacteria, in the 1870s, let to the conclusion that infectious illnesses and epidemics were not caused by fumes from cesspools and sewers, but rather from contaminated water. These discoveries demonstrated the importance of purifying water intended for human consumption.

  • What

    The illustration shows the various organic and inorganic substances observed in Montreal's water in 1870 by members of the Montreal Microscope Club.

  • Where

    In 1856, Montreal finally stopped drawing water close to the city's main sewer after a major renovation of the municipal water supply network.

  • When

    Canadian municipalities only understood in 1894 that the deterioration in the quality of drinking water was due to waste water being discharged into waterways.

  • Who

    The French biologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) discovered that water was an ideal environment for the proliferation of bacteria.