Water - Waters

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820. Originally published by University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, 2007.

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[watter; watre; wat'r; wather]

The term is an occasional abbreviation for WATERED. Frederick Accum apparently stated the obvious, and commonly understood fact, when he said that 'waters which issue from the recesses of the earth, and form springs, wells, rivers, or lakes, often materially differ from each other in their taste and other obvious properties' [Accum (1820)]. He was disastrously mistaken, however, in the equally commonly held belief that the 'foreign matter' brought down into the Thames in London 'after having received all the contents of the sewers, drains and water courses of a large town' had 'no perceptible influence on the salubrious quality' of the water [Accum (1820)] His criteria of goodness were bound up closely with the needs of industries, most of which desired soft water - brewing, dyeing, bleaching, colour-making, laundry and retting flax. He assumed that cooks also preferred soft water, though this does not always seem to have been the case [Accum (1820)]. Cookery books were often quite specific in what water they deemed suitable, and most commonly stipulated SPRING WATER, which Accum claimed was frequently hard [Accum (1820)]. Cookery writers used a whole tranch of descriptors for water, which give some idea of the problems that might arise, such as clean, FAIR, FRESH, running and rain, and ones that were more neutral in tone, like COMMON, ORDINARY and PUMP. It suggests that cooks were acutely aware of the merits and, to some extent, of the demerits of the various types of water available.

OED online earliest date of use: c897

Sources: Diaries, Houghton, Newspapers, Patents, Rates, Recipes, Tradecards.
References: Accum (1820).

Water chain

[watering-chain; water chane; water chains; water chaine; chaines for watering bridles]

A CHAIN, inserted between the WATERING BIT and the leather REIN of a WATERING BRIDLE to prevent the LEATHER from rotting when the HORSE drinks.

OED online earliest date of use: 1598

Sources: Houghton, Inventories (late).

Water colour

[water-colour; watercolour]

A pigment or PAINT for which water is used as the solvent instead of OIL. Water colouring became a fashionable accomplishment for young women in particular during the eighteenth century; hence advertisements like the one by Joseph Emerton, who claimed to sell '(to the Ladies) all sorts of Water Colours and Varnish, with everything necessary for the New Jappaning; and gives a printed Direction, for the doing of it to the greatest Perfection' [Newspapers (1740)] and another for 'Hair Pencils and water colours ready prepared in Shells, fit for the use of young Gentlemen and Ladies in that improving and pleasant Amusement of Print Colouring' [Newspapers (1750)]. A further advertisement offered for sale 'approved water colour in Cakes' by the inventor who claimed to have 'devoted 22 years in the preparing of Superfine Water Colours in cakes' [Newspapers (1794)].

OED earliest date of use: 1596

Found described as Beautiful, Superfine
Found in units of CAKE, VIAL, SHELL

Sources: Newspapers, Patents, Tradecards.

Water measure


One of the systems of measuring capacity formerly used for COAL, FRUIT, SALT, etc., and other goods sold on board vessels in a port or in the river. The BUSHEL water measure seems to have been the ordinary bushel heaped, although a late-fifteenth century act, 11 HEN7 C4 (1495), ordained that it should contain 5 PECK of striked measure, thus exceeding the standard bushel by one-fourth. A deponent in 1659 referring to practice on the River Severn swore that for APPLEs the bushel water measure was 2 bushels 'and more of the ordinary WINCHESTER MEASURE by which corn is usually sold by in the market' [Thirsk and Cooper (1972)]. A water measure of much larger proportions seems to have been used for coal in the north. Its use for selling CORN, GRAIN or SALT was prohibited in 1670 [Acts (1670)]. For APPLES and PEARS, the measure to be used for water measure was described as round, diameter 18½ INCH and 8 INCH deep. It was to be used heaped as was usual [Acts (1701)]. Newcastle, one of the most important ports for the export of coal in coastal traffic to London, seems to have had its own version of water measure [Acts (1799)].

OED earliest date of use: 1465

Sources: Acts, Rates.

Water of frogs

[water of froges]

Water of frogs has been noted only once in the Dictionary Archive among the stock held by an apothecary's widow [Inventories (1634)]. Various waters in which animal material was the principal active ingredient were available, including AQUA LUMBRICORUM and SNAIL WATER The latter remained available into the eighteenth century, although generally these waters went out of use well before. In line with ideas of sympathetic effects, it may have been used to treat a swelling in the mouth found in infants called 'Frog'.

Not found in the OED

Sources: Inventories (early).

Water of musk

MUSK was a common component in PERFUMERY, but it is occasionally found as a DISTILLED WATER perfumed or flavoured with musk. It has only been noted in the Dictionary Archive used in cooking [Recipes (Nott)], where it was used in very small quantities.

Not found in the OED

Sources: Recipes.

Water pot

[watter pott; waterpott; waterpot; water potte; water pott]

The OED suggests that the term meant a watering pot; in other words, a pot in which water is stored as opposed to a watering can. The context of many of our early examples suggest they were more commonly FLOWER POTs in the modern sense, since they are found in quite large number, in different, though undefined sizes, usually with other ceramics and once with SAUCERs. In the early part of the period, they were sometimes made of metal, but are found among the small household items, rather than in a place where one might expect water to be stored. A late 'copper garden pot' [Inventories (1716)] valued at 10s fits better the OED definition, and was probably similar to the contemporary 'Watering Pot and Horse' valued at 18d [Inventories (1716)].

OED earliest date of use: 1382


Sources: Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).

Water tub

[wat'r tubb; watertubb; water tubb; water and sand tubb]

A TUB, used like a WATER TROUGH, for storing a supply of domestic water. However, note alternative uses such as: 'a watertubb to washe potts in' [Inventories (1627)] and 'a Water Tubb and Carriage' [Inventories (1723)].

OED online earliest date of use: 1533 under Water

Found described as OLD

Sources: Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).

Water works

As conurbations grew larger, the need for water grew in tandem, and it became increasingly difficult to supply demand from water carriers and water carts in the way, for example, that Randle Holme seems to have envisaged [Holme (2000)]. London as the largest city in the country by far, instigated major water works at an early date. There were various reservoirs in the metropolis by the mid-sixteenth century, with conduits or pipes from Tyburn (1236), Highbury (1438), Hackney (1535), and Hoxton (1546). Water works were established at London Bridge in 1582 using the Thames. In 1613 Sir Hugh Middleton was instrumental in building the New River that extended some 24 miles along the 100 foot contour from springs near Hertford to Islington [Trinder (1992)]. Unlike earlier schemes, which obliged consumers to collect their own water from the conduit head, or use the water carriers to do it for them, Middleton constructed branch pipes direct to the houses of those prepared to pay [Tomlinson (1854)]. A spate of interest in methods of raising water, primarily for draining land and mines but with the supply of water as a secondary consideration, led to a string of patents, for example [Patents (1679)]. In 1694, John Hadley patented a method of raising water that would cope with rising and falling water levels [Patents (1694)]. This was employed in Leeds and Exeter shortly after, and on London Bridge in 1696 [Trinder (1992)]. Other patents addressed problems of carrying water in ceramic pipes [Patents (1725)]; [Patents (1734)], and the construction of filtration systems [Patents (1791)]; [Patents (1792)]. It was not until the nineteenth century that concern for issues of public health made a real impact on the provision of water. At a less ambitious level the occasional advertisement appeared by plumbers, who claimed to provide, for example, 'Cast Pipes fit for the Water works ... the Three Quarters at 8d a Yard and the others at Rates proportionable to the sizes with Cock and ferrel fit for the purpose' [Newspapers (1709)].

OED earliest date of use: c13--

Sources: Newspapers, Patents.
References: Holme (2000), Tomlinson (1854), Trinder (1992).


[wtd; wattered; watterd; watred; water'd; waterd; water; wat']

Of SILK or other TEXTILES: Having a wavy or lustrous damask-like pattern or finish; achieved by rolling a heavy weight over the fabrics. It was an old process, but innovators attempted to improve the methods used, hence a patent of 1684 for 'Beautifying cloth, serges, stuffs, and other manufactures, by impressing indented lines resembling the wale of Tabby, and thereby watering, damasking, and flowering the same' [Patents (1684)].

The term was also applied to to FLAX and HEMP that had been rotted or retted to remove the fleshy part of the stems prior to preparing the fibres for spinning.

OED earliest date of use: 1585


Sources: Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Rates, Tradecards.

Watering bit

[watering-bit; naggs bitts and one watering ditto]

A straight bar SNAFFLE used to control a HORSE when led to water. In the early-modern period, water was rarely available in the stable so the HORSE had to be taken to water. Since many male horses were uncastrated, and therefore sometimes difficult to control, a WATERING BRIDLE rather than a HALTER was used along with a watering bit so designed that it could not catch on the side of the trough or bucket.

OED online earliest date of use: c1721 under Masticator

Found described as LINEN

Sources: Houghton.

Watering bridle

A BRIDLE used for taking a HORSE to water. It would have been fitted with a BRIDLE BIT, which is a form of SNAFFLE.

OED earliest date of use: 1502

Sources: Houghton, Inventories (late).

Watering engine

[engines for extinguishing fire or watering gardens]

An apparatus for watering the garden or for some other similar purpose. In some cases, the valuations suggested they probably consisted of no more than a hand pump, like the 'Tin Watering Engine' valued at 6s found in 'the House place' [Inventories (1752)], or the '2 watering Engines' at 9s each [Inventories (1799)]. Possibly more ambitious were the 'Engines for Extinguishing Fire or Watering Gardens' made and sold by a London ENGINE maker [Tradecards (1775)]. One quotation in the OED, dated 1663, claimed that by the use of a 'Water Engine', 'Whole Cities may be kept clean' [OED online, Scavengery]. This suggests a different use for what was probably a similar apparatus.

OED earliest date of use: 1663 under Scavengery

Found made of TIN

Sources: Inventories (late), Tradecards.


[waterproofing; water-proof]

The term denotes the quality of being impervious to water and/or capable of resisting the deleterious action of water. In an age when most people travelled by foot, on horseback, or in open carriage, withstanding the worst that the weather could throw at them was a serious challenge, particularly as waterproofing using rubber were not yet available, though one late patent was proposing a 'waterproof compound, and a vegetable liquid' that would render fabrics 'impenetrable to wet, as well as elastic and durable' [Patents (1797)]. Tightly woven WOOLLEN CLOTH provides surprisingly good protection against wet, though it becomes very heavy and cold once saturated. One solution was OILSKIN, but as the patents show, there were problems with it from bad smells and staining of the garments underneath. Advertisements, like the one for 'Cloth made Water-proof, for Gentlemens' great Coats, to turn the hardest Fall of Rain for twelve Hours' [Newspapers (1790)], guarded the secrets of the method. Several patents to waterproof cloth [Patents (1634)], SKIN [Patents (1627)], and even HATs [Patents (1780)] were reticent in their short titles on method, but they probably all used oil to some extent.

OED online earliest date of use: 1736

Sources: Newspapers, Patents.


[watters; war'rs; hungary water]

WATER in the plural was used in a variety of ways, but the most common was as a collective term for distilled alcoholic liquors, known in full as STRONG WATERS or HOT WATERS, but it is also found in other terms such as SIMPLE WATERS, PERFUMED WATERS and DISTILLED WATERS that may or may not be based on alcohol.

'To take the waters' was a fashionable occupation that involved visiting one of the many spas, either in Britain or abroad, and drinking or bathing in the water of the mineral spring or mineral springs found there. Some of these SPA WATERS were bottled and found advertised and for sale. Since many of the waters available were medicinal many of them are found with a Latin name only, such as AQUA RAPHANI, or the same product is found with both a Latin and an English name, such as BEZOAR WATER, or AQUA BEZOAR. In a few of these the English and the Latin names are quite different, as for example ORANGE FLOWER WATER which becomes AQUA NAPHAE. Other waters, particularly those of TOILETRY, were given a French label to denote their fashionablility. These, too, sometimes appeared in both French and English; for example, JONQUIL WATER and EAU DE JONQUILLE. Some, being both medicinal and fashionable was found in the shops with labels in all three formats; a typical example is CINNAMON WATER known also as EAU DE CANELLE and as AQUA CINAMONIS.

OED earliest date of use: 13--

Found in units of CASK, GALLON

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.