In 1876, The School Board For London commissioned W B Tegetmeier to produce " a scholars' handbook on the general principles on which the processes of Cookery and the sanitary management of a home depend". It was to be " a book fit for use in schools, where the pupils should be instructed in the first principles" of home management. It was found that by using it in the schools "The girls, in three months, can be taught plain cooking, washing, and cleaning, enough to prepare them for service, or to make them useful to their mothers at home." The book presents in great detail the minutiae of life in the Victorian home. This is what Victorian schoolchildren learned about water and its management - it makes scary reading in places.
The goodness of the water used by us is of very great importance. Many more diseases are caused by bad water than even by bad food. Water forms three-quarters of our weight, and before any part of our food can be taken into our bodies it must be dissolved in the watery fluids of the stomach. All fresh vegetables contain a very large proportion of water. Thus potatoes consist of three-quarters, and turnips and cabbage of upwards of nine-tenths, of their weight of this liquid. Even the driest vegetable substances contain a large proportion. Dry wheaten flour has fifteen pounds of water in every and bread contains one third of its weight of water.
Water has so great a power of dissolving other substances, that it is not found anywhere in a perfectly pure state, but has always in it mineral substances, sometimes decaying vegetable and even animal materials derived from the soil or earth through which it flows, and gases and odours absorbed from the air.
In large towns water is usually supplied by the water companies through pipes, having been obtained from rivers. The water is generally supplied only for a short time each day, and the quantity received has to be stored up in cisterns or water-butts. These should be very frequently cleaned out, as the impurities of the water settle at the bottom and are stirred up each time the fresh water comes in. Water-butts and cisterns should never be placed near any decaying matters, such as manure heaps, or in close underground cellars, or near cesspools or drains, as the water very quickly absorbs the gases and bad smells arising from such substances, and becomes unwholesome. Water standing for a night in a close or crowded room absorbs the impure air and becomes unpleasant to the taste and injurious to health. When the waste or overflow pipe from a cistern runs into a drain the foul air rises up the pipe and renders the water unwholesome, and the same evil arises if the cistern supplies a water-closet.
River water varies very much in quality, that from some rivers contains a great amount of decaying matter from the sewers and drains that run into them; such water should not be used if it is possible to avoid it, but if no other can be obtained, it should be filtered and boiled before being drunk, or used in preparing food.
All river water contains a small proportion of chalk, or carbonate of lime, dissolved in it. If the quantity is large the water is said to be hard - the greater the proportion of chalk the harder the water. The water of the river Thames, with which the greater part of London is supplied, contains fourteen grains of chalk in each gallon. Very little chalk (only two grains in every gallon) can be dissolved by pure water. The large quantity found in river and spring water is dissolved by means of a gas, called carbonic acid gas, which is always present. When the water is heated this gas is driven off in small bubbles, which may be seen just before the water reaches the boiling point; the chalk is then thrown down in a solid form, rendering the water slightly cloudy or turbid, and afterwards it settles down on the sides and bottoms of boilers or kettles forming the rock or fur which is always found in old boilers.
When green vegetables are boiled in hard water, the chalk causes them to be of a dull colour; and when clothes are boiled in hard water, as is sometimes done in washing, the rock or fur settles on them, causing them to be of a bad colour, the dirt being fixed in the clothes. When hard water is used for cooking or washing it is best to boil it for a few minutes before using it, as then the fur is thrown down on the sides of the boiler, and not on the food or clothes. Hard water is not good for making tea, as the strength of the tea-leaves is very slowly extracted.
The bad effects of hard water in cooking may be partly remedied by using a small quantity of carbonate of soda, or even common washing soda, this softens the water, but if much be added it gives a soapy, unpleasant taste; as much as would cover a sixpennypiece may be added to a large saucepan of greens, and about a quarter as much to a large teapot of tea.
Spring or well water differs very much in purity, that which is collected in shallow wells should never be used in places that are thickly populated or highly manured, for the water is rendered impure by the decaying animal and vegetable substances in the soil, and becomes very unwholesome. When shallow wells are situated near cesspools or drains, the water becomes quite poisonous, and gives rise to cholera, fevers, and other fatal diseases. The water of wells situated in large cities, or near graveyards, is always to be avoided.
The water from deep wells is generally free from any decaying vegetable matter or drainage, and is wholesome as a beverage, but it most frequently is excessively hard from containing a large amount of chalk dissolved in it.
Rain water is very pure if collected in country districts where there is but little smoke, but in towns it is always blackened by soot. It is very soft, being perfectly free from mineral substances, and if collected in proper tanks free from leaves of trees and other decaying substances is very well fitted for cooking, drinking and washing.
Note: Tegetmeier's complete text can be viewed on-line in the Victorian Dictionary