Illinois State Water Survey at the 1914 State Fair

The 2016 Illinois State Fair opens today in Springfield.  To celebrate the Fair and “throwback Thursday,” we are highlighting an exhibit displayed by Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS) at the Illinois State Fair held September 18-26, 1914, nearly 102 years ago.


The exhibit was in the Exposition Building, next to the booths of the State Board of Health.  It featured a map of the water supplies surveyed by ISWS with color coded flags.  Black flags with skulls and crossbones indicated unsafe supplies.  The display aimed to educate the public about the connection between proper sanitation and safe drinking water.  A model showed the flow of water “to the well from the privy” and suggested, “perhaps that ‘fine mineral flavor’ you notice in well water comes from the barnyard.”  Model sanitary privies were also displayed.  A full description of the exhibit can be found in ISWS Bulletin 12 (pp. 237-241).

The ISWS was founded in 1895 within the University of Illinois Department of Chemistry, “for carrying on a systematic survey of the waters of the state.” Early work focused on the safety of Illinois water supplies, particularly sanitation and waterborne diseases such as typhoid and diphtheria.   Under the direction of its third chief, Edward Bartow, ISWS staff had made on-site visits to more than 250 communities by the end of 1914, where they assessed conditions and consulted with local engineers to help improve the safety of public water supplies (ISWS Bulletin 12, pp. 23-25).

A less obvious contribution to the Illinois State Fair by the Illinois State Water Survey was the inspection of fairground wells on August 20-21, 1914 reported in ISWS Bulletin 12 (pp. 132-133).    “The analyses show that not one of the wells was entirely free from the influence of contamination and that some of them were dangerously polluted.”  Sewer lines were found to have “open joints” providing “abundant opportunity for leakage.”  The ISWS recommended closure and filling of all wells, and a transition to using the Springfield public water supply on the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

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Updated from the original 8/13/2015 post on the Prairie Research Institute Library’s blog, “News from the Library.”