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Drinking water

A hundred years ago, the first filters fitted into earthenware containers appeared

Getting clean water to drink has always been a problem for populations from all over the world. In Brazil, during the colonial and imperial periods there were no efficient systems for distributing and treating water serving dwellings. People would use river water channeled to fountains and waterspouts, distributed at some points in the cities. In rural areas, catchment was handled through wells, brooks or cisterns. The clay containers fitted with a filter candle inside, an obligatory presence in Brazilian dwellings until the 1980’s, arose only at the beginning of the 20th century. Until the end of the 19th century, looking at the color, smell or for the visible presence of particles was one of the few ways for the consumer to decide whether the water was fit for drinking. One of the most common methods was to decant it, that is, to leave it “resting” in recipients for the impurities to be deposited on the bottom, by gravity. All that was needed, then, was to use a ladle to take the “clean” water from the top.

The other practice, more effective but little used, was to boil the water. In some households, they used a porous sink-shaped stone, 10 centimeters thick. The water would be thrown into the sink, and then absorbed by it, to drip into an earthenware container. Also at the beginning of the 20th century, Berkfeld and Pasteur filters started to arrive. Made of hollow candles of porous porcelain inside metal containers, produced in Germany and in Britain, they would be installed at the point where the water entered the house. The great innovation in the filtering of water occurred in the first two decades of last century. “Pottery companies from São Paulo started equipping the containers they produced with filtering elements”, says researcher in economic history Julio Cesar Bellingieri, from the School of Sciences and Literature at the São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Araraquara.

The earthenware container merely stored the water and kept it fresh for consumption. From the moment it was fitted with a filter, the container was divided into two parts: the upper one with the filter, and the lower one into which the water that passes through the candle falls. “In spite of the fact that the principle of the process for making filters was already known in other countries, and the earthenware container for holding water being a practice that back to the beginning of civilization, these two elements were only combined at the beginning of the 20th century, and only in Brazil, giving rise to a new product”, Bellingieri explains.

These first filters were merely a flattened mortar of clay, fine sand and charcoal, taken to the kiln for firing and stuck to the bottom of the upper body of the container. Afterwards, another one was created, in the format of a candle, in some cases made up of a mixture of kaolin (china clay) and phyllite (a kind of mineral). From the 1930’s onwards, the earthenware container with its filter spread all over Brazil and was given a place of honor in all the kitchens. More modern filters arose in the last 20 years, with microfiltration and antibacterial elements.