The Watering Can

The German town of Giessen is home to one of the world’s most curious museums, the Giesskannenmuseum. Situated in Sonnenstrasse, near the town’s famed botanical gardens, it celebrates the common-or-garden watering can, be they ancient or modern, valuable or cheap, large or small, and 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 them to point the flow of water precisely where it is needed. A hose pipe, a more scatter gun approach, often means that water lands on the foliage, increasing the risk of scorching as the sun’s rays increase in intensity. Our six have made a small but not insignificant contribution to a global lawn and garden watering equipment market worth $4.9 billion in 2019.

A gardener’s preoccupation with ensuring that their plants do not wilt through want of water is not a modern phenomenon. In the ruins of Herculaneum, destroyed during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, archaeologists have found vessels which were used to transport water for watering gardens. However, if we define a watering can as a portable container with a handle, a hole for filling it up with water, and a further set of holes through which the contents can be sprinkled, then its prototype can be traced to around the 15th century.

Its primary use, though, was not to water plants but to keep floors clean. Straw and rushes, used to cover floors, were notorious for collecting dust, amongst other things. Periodic watering kept the dust levels down and stopped it from flying around when it was time to replace the covering.

Typically, a chantepleure was used, an earthenware pot shaped like a bell or a jug, with a handle which arched from the vessel’s body to the top of its narrow neck. There was a small hole at the top of the vessel and a series of holes at the bottom.

Its use persisted well into the 19th century, William Whitley recording in his Art of England 1821-37 (1930), that “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”.  

Placing your thumb over the top created enough internal pressure to keep the water inside, but as soon as you lifted it, the contents would flow out through the holes in the bottom of the vessel. With the growth in interest in gardening in the 16th century, horticulturalists were quick to see that it had an application in solving the perennial problem of how to ensure plants were adequately watered.

Thomas Hill, in his The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577), gave precise instructions on how to use what he called “the common watering potte for the Garden beddes”. The Florists Vade Mecum (1638) did likewise, leading its author to observe that “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”. Unsurprisingly, very few earthenware thumb-pots have survived and so command quite a premium, one selling for a record price of £5,040 at Sothebys in Billinghurst on September 23, 2003.

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