Friday, August 1, 2008

Lexicon: alberca, algibe, citerne, cuve, cistern, réservoir

Newspapers across the country were reporting a drought in late nineteenth-century New Orleans. The 5 June 1898 New York Times commented:

It is hard for us rain-soaked Northerners to believe, but there has been a long
drought all through the region of which New Orleans is the centre, and the
people of that city are face to face with a water famine. It is true that despite
the failure of the clouds to do their duty, the Mississippi has not yet run dry, and
as the water works of New Orleans gets their supply from the river, one
unacquainted with the circumstances might suppose that no scarcity could
exist. The trouble is that the city doesn't own its water works, and the company
which does charges such enormous prices for its service that a large majority of
the people still trust to ancient cisterns. The contents of these have been
getting steadily lower for some time; now many of them are empty and the
others might as well be, for the small amount of semi-liquid matter in them is
a peril to the health of everybody that drinks it.

Cisterns were known in local parlance by a number of different names: alberca, algibe, citerne, cuve, réservoir. The above-ground variety, shown here, were normally used in the late 18th-19th centuries, were iron-strapped cedar barrels. A pipe connected to the house supplied running water. The house depicted in this picture is roofed with shakes, also called known by variant names merrain, merin, miren (called pickets in English). [For more information on the nomenclature, see: Jay Dearborn Edwards and Nicolas Kariouk Pecquet du Bellay de Verton's A Creole Lexicon. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2004]. anthonyturducken has posted a current-day Uptown New Orleans cistern on flickr.

Today's New Orleans is witnessing the daily loss of millions of gallons of potable water. To listen to John Burnett's National Public Radio report, click here.

The image above is one of many unidentified photographs in the collection of the Southeastern Architectural Archive. Handwritten on the back is the notation: "N.O. housing -- slums." Any assistance in identifying the location of the photograph would be much appreciated!


anthonyturducken said...

modern day cistern in uptown

Francine Stock said...

The roofline reminds me of Charles Colbert's residence of Dr Simon on Octavia Street.

Keli Rylance said...

Absolutely! And I think Colbert was nodding towards early French Louisiana architecture [See Cazayoux article at:]