From volcanic eruptions to dusty floors: the perforative history of the watering can.
From volcanic eruptions to dusty floors: the perforative history of the watering can.
The German town of Giessen is home to the country’s oldest botanical garden. Originally started to host medicinal plants, this garden now contains eight thousand species from all round the world. Students use it in their research in medicine, geography, and the history of plants in the outside world.
But what of domesticated plants? What of the small gardens each of us has near our homes each day?
Giessen has something for that too: the Giesskannenmuseum. Situated in Sonnenstrasse, near the town’s famed botanical gardens, this museum celebrates one of the gardener’s most ubiquitous tools: the common-or-garden watering can.
Be they ancient or modern, valuable, or cheap, large or small, you will probably find them in the Giesskannenmuseum, which boasts over a thousand exhibits. Founded in 2011, it is in the perfect spot — after all, giessen means “to sprinkle”.
As plants draw up moisture from the surrounding soil and compost through their roots, the watering can is an invaluable part of a gardener’s armoury, allowing one to point the flow of water precisely where it is needed. I use one almost every day during the summer, to ensure the plants I have carefully nurtured in the pots scattered throughout my garden do not wilt.
I prefer it to the hose pipe: a more scatter gun approach, which often means that water lands on the foliage, reducing its effectiveness as it will soon evaporate. Common wisdom says this also increases the risk of scorching, as the sun’s rays get focused by the water droplets and increase in intensity — although studies suggest that effect may not be as common as believed.
Either way, our six watering-cans have made a small but not insignificant contribution to a global lawn and garden watering equipment market worth $4.9 billion in 2019. And if you think this is recent, let me tell you that the gardener’s preoccupation with keeping their plants watered is not a modern phenomenon.
During the height of the Roman empire, the ancient city of Herćulaneum was thriving. Its residents built magnificent structures; their villas were surrounded by vineyards an orchards that grew lushly from the dark, fertile soil.
Little did they know the fertility of the soil was caused by early eruptions from a nearby volcano: Mount Vesuvius.
In they year 79AD, the people of Herćulaneum, as well as of nearby Pompeii, were rocked by a massive explosion. The top of Mount Vesuvius split open, releasing a large towering cloud of ash, stones, and dust. According to one eyewitness, the cloud rose to a great height, and then split off into branches. Some parts of it were white; others blotched and dirty, depending on the amount of soil and ashes it carried.
Then the cloud came down on the city, smothering it entirely. Within eighteen minutes, the entire population of Herćulaneum was dead; killed by the very entity that gave their gardens such vigour and prosperity.
The most vivid images of the Mount Vesuvius eruption are those that came later: people fully encased in solidified lava; literally turned into statues. Among those ruins, though, archaeologists have also found vessels which were used to transport water for watering gardens.
They were, of course, the ancient equivalent of watering cans.
To maintain the typical 15th-century English floor, one needed to have a strong thumb. Floors of this period used to be covered by straws and rushes, notorious for collecting large amounts of dust and several other things besides. This dust was prone to fly, especially while changing the coverings. And one technique to keep those dust levels down,which you will also see in mud-floored constructions of today, was to water it.
But don’t forget that these were floors being regularly used. It would not do to apply too much water and make the entire place damp and soggy. Hence, the use of a device that regulated the amount of water coming out: the earthen ware pot known as a “chantepleure”.
Shaped like a bell or jug, a chantepleure would have a series of small holes at the bottom for water to drain out. Its handle arched up from its body to the top of its narrow neck, and, right at the top of the neck, there was one single hole that was a bit more interesting. Placing your thumb over this top hole created enough internal pressure to keep the water inside. As soon as you lifted your thumb, the water would flow out through the holes in the bottom of the vessel.
The waters in this vessel were, literally, under your thumb.
About a century later, interest in gardening was on the rise. Thomas Hill was a 19th-century astrologer, who wrote about the interpretation of dreams, astrology, arithmetic, and physiognomy. But one of his extremely successful book was one going by the rather long title of A most briefe and pleasaunte treatise, teaching how to dresse, sowe, and set a garden.
Aimed at owners of small manor houses, who had enough time and resources to grow large gardens and tend to them, the book was so successful it went through seven reprints. Hill then went on to write several followups — including The Gardener’s Labyrinth, where he gave precise instructions on how to use what he called “the common watering potte for the Garden beddes”.
Another publication, the Florists Vade Mecum elaborated further, saying that,
[T]his serves to water young and tender seedlings for by the motion of your thumb you may cause the water to fall gently upon them more or less as you shall desire”.
Gardening, it turned out, had the same problems a dusty floor did: having to water something evenly, and by the right amount, but not too much. And so, horticulturists had been quick to apply the same solutions.
Watering-pots or chantepleures coexisted for quite a while in both the gardening and home-making worlds. And it wasn’t just homes either:as art historian William Whitley notes, the flooring of the London Royal Academy was, as far in as the 19th century, nothing but bare boards watered every morning to keep the dust down. Watered down, that is, by the “watering pot”. A similar mechanism was used in the National Gallery too.
That said, very few earthenware thumb-pots have survived. The ones that do command quite a premium, one selling for a record price of £5,040…and that was back in 2003.
We know that modern-day floors aren’t quite as dusty as they used to be, not to mention the fact that we now have more advanced ways of clearing them. But what of the modern-day garden, and its lack of chantepleures? Obviously, some new technology came to replace that too.
The phrase “watering can” was first used by Timothy Kemble in his diary in 1692. This was the same time people came up with a design more recognisable to modern eyes as a watering can.
Imagine a jug-shaped can, with a large hole at the top for receiving water and a handle running from the top to middle of the jug’s back. Instead of holes at the bottom, it had a funnel leading to a perforated spout. This spout is known today as a “rose” — a word derived from the French noun arroseur meaning sprinkler. Names aside, it makes strong thumbs redundant and reduces the opportunity for mishaps.
To further increase efficiency the jug-shape turned into a canister with a cone on top. By this time people like agronomer Louis Liger D’Auxerre were waxing lyrical about it:
Nothing is more useful in a Garden than a Watering-Pot, so that a Gardner cannot be without it. It imitates the Rain falling from the Heavens; when being bended down, it spouts forth Water thro’ a thousand holes, in a sort of Head that’s made to it. By this means, it succours the Plants in the most beneficial manner.
As technology improved, earthenware gave way to copper; over the years, iron, brass, and zinc were increasingly deployed. However, the intrinsic design of the can remained the same: it worked, and it poured water, but it was a little cumbersome.
That is, until John Haws enters our story.
A civil servant posted to Mauritius, Clapton-born John Haws was by his own admission an unsuccessful gardener. Evidently undaunted by that fact, he started to grow vanilla plants as a hobby. There was only one thing about the whole process he found exasperating: the design of the watering can.
You see, the watering-can’s single large handle, arching from front to back, made it awkward to balance and manoeuvre — especially when trying to reach those plants on the upper shelves in a greenhouse. And so, in 1884, Haws sat down to see whether he could improve upon the design.
His final idea was to have two handles on the can instead of just one. There was the “carrying” handle for moving the can around; then there was the “tipping” handle to hold while pouring out the water. This allowed people to manoeuvre the can more easily, allowing for a more even flow of water onto the roots of the plants. What’s more, the spout started at the bottom of the can, rather than near the top, so once water started pouring it would continue to do so even while aiming for hard-to-reach top shelves.
With these two modifications, the new watering can was easy to wield and pour, no matter whether it was brimming-full or near-empty.
On his return to England, Haws found a country bitten by the gardening bug. Glass was now more widely available and cheaper, making greenhouses more affordable, sparking an interest in growing exotic and delicate plants which were then transferred to ornamental gardens and borders.
These delicate plants, not surprisingly, required regular watering by hand.
Seizing the moment, Haws applied for a patent for his new design for a watering can, claiming that
[T]his new invention forms a watering pot that is much easier to carry and tip, and at the same time being much cleaner, and more adapted for use than any other put before the public.
The Patent Office agreed, awarding Haws his patent in 1886.
Setting up a factory in Clapton, the John Haws watering can soon found favour with leading gardeners, establishing the reputation of Haws for goods of the highest quality. He was awarded the Royal Horticultural Society medal, to be presented at the first ever Chelsea Flower Show in 1913, but, sadly, he died before he could receive it.
Haws’ nephew Arthur moved the business to Bishops Stortford and maintained his uncle’s attention to detail, even employing a worker whose sole task was to punch every hole into each rose, spaced and tapered to perfection. No wonder the company is still trading and has maintained its reputation for making watering cans of the highest quality.
While Haws is recognised as the father of the modern-day watering can, his design template, which is still used today, was but one step in the development of this most useful of gardeners’ tools. If you want to attest to that, a glance into the Giessenkannen museum is all it takes.
 Thomas Hill, The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577): “the common watering potte for the Garden beddes”
 Samuel Gilbert, Florists Vade Mecum (1638): “this serves to water young and tender seedlings for by the motion of your thumb you may cause the water to fall gently upon them more or less as you shall desire”
 William T. Whitney, Art of England 1821–37 (1930): “the flooring of the [London Royal] Academy in 1833…was nothing but bare boards, watered every morning to keep the dust down. The watering pot was used in similar fashion in…the National Gallery”.
 Louis Liger D’Auxerre, The Compleat Florist (1706): “Nothing is more useful in a Garden than a Watering-Pot, so that a Gardner cannot be without it. It imitates the Rain falling from the Heavens; when being bended down, it spouts forth Water thro’ a thousand holes, in a sort of Head that’s made to it. By this means, it succours the Plants in the most beneficial manner”