Managing the home water supply involved a lot more than remembering to turn off the tap in the years before indoor plumbing and widespread “city” water was available.
We had a cistern, as opposed to a well. That was my parents’ preference when they were building our house. Without the mineral content, cistern water was so much softer and better for laundry and washing hair. Much more lye soap was required to make a lather in the hard well water, and a tall glass of refreshing iced tea made with cistern water was clear and bright, never cloudy.
Some wells could run dry in extreme drought conditions, but there was a built-in limit to how much a cistern could ever hold. Because of this limit always looming, we were very watchful and conservative with water use. We were also very watchful of the weather and took advantage of good rains that came to replenish the water we used from the cistern.
The house roof needed to wash off for a while before the rain was directed into the cistern—dust and bugs in the summer, soot from the chimney in winter. Two rain barrels stood near the corner of the back porch nearest the cistern, and the gutter downspout was always hooked over the edge of one of them to catch this first water for various outdoor uses. After a hot summer day, the water in the rain barrel remained warm enough for a bath before bed.
When satisfied that rain had rinsed the roof well enough, we swung the downspout across the porch to the mouth of the cistern. We slipped the cistern head with its crank and chain to the side to make an opening and covered the area with a heavy grass sack or something to prevent a passing cat from falling in.
Taking a frequent look at the level of water as it rose in the cistern was very important. We didn’t want the cistern to be brimming full; that extra weight could cause a break in the cemented bottom—a disaster, indeed.
It was a satisfying feeling to have the cistern filled, but that did not keep us from being frugal with water use. If the cistern should go dry, that meant our carrying or hauling buckets of water uphill from the spring until rain fell from the sky again.
Our rules for re-purposing water were rarely relaxed. On wash day, soapy water was poured on back porch steps and chicken droppings scoured away with the broom. The tub of rinse water was emptied on the canna bed.
Indoors we were careful to put greasy water in the slop bucket as stock for making hog feed, and clearer water, such as was used for rinsing fresh vegetables, went in the slosh bucket for watering flowers and garden plants. If no growing thing needed it, we would settle the dust where the chickens had been scratching in the yard by pouring it there.
I am very grateful for our good and convenient water supply today, but I am no worse off because of having had to manage our water use carefully. That training makes it quite natural for me to turn off the tap in a timely manner.