This article proposes that a history-of-knowledge approach offers innovative ways to study the use of domestic infrastructure in the household. More specifically, the article investigates the role of knowledge about water fixtures, such as meters, taps, and toilets, in the history of progressive-era Los Angeles. Building on the rich literature about how Los Angeles obtained its water, this article shifts the focus to the relationship that everyday consumers had with their water and how technology mediated this relationship. While the article analyzes three major fields of knowledge about the use of infrastructure (knowledge about personal and public hygiene, about the maintenance and repair of fittings, and about responsible levels of water consumption), it foregrounds users’ agency in construing bodies of knowledge. Taken together, this article argues, first, that practical knowledge about water as a modern convenience was mutually developed by the utility’s publicity department, meter men, municipal health authorities, elected officials, newspaper editors, middle-class reformers, property owners, working-class immigrants, and female householders. Second, the article emphasizes the dynamics, contingency, and locality of this knowledge, which was linked to the stunning growth of Los Angeles between 1880 and 1930.
Water Infrastructure and Practical Knowledge in Progressive-Era Los Angeles
Dr. Jan Hansen is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Humboldt University Berlin, Germany. His research focuses on the United States and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular interests in the histories of infrastructure, the environment, and urban history. Currently working on a second book project dealing with the everyday use of water and power infrastructures in Los Angeles between 1860 and 1940, Jan was a Dibner Research Fellow at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC. In 2021, he will take up an appointment as Feodor Lynen Fellow at the University of Southern California.
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Jan Hansen; Water Infrastructure and Practical Knowledge in Progressive-Era Los Angeles. Southern California Quarterly 30 October 2020; 102 (4): 385–419. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/scq.2020.102.4.385
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