Duck Duck Book

56 – manhole covers
10.6.2008, 12:02 am
Filed under: technology

Manhole covers / Mimi Melnick ; photographs by Robert A. Melnick ; foreword by Allan Sekula.
Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1994.
[MCL call number: 628.24 M527m 1994; one copy, no holds]

Have you ever looked down while crossing the street, and been shocked by the venerable age, or even the simple artistic grace of a manhole cover? They’re on nearly every city street. Some are plain, but intriguing because they are marked with the names of long-departed utility companies or municipalities; others are elegant works of art illustrated with flowers and geometric designs. Some are more pedestrian, covered with simple grids, plain over-all patterns of dots, or radial designs. But once you start to really see them you are likely to find a wide variety of different designs and patterns.

One reason is that although they are walked on and driven over every day, manhole covers are made of cast iron, and are incredibly heavy and durable. So they can have very long lives. Another is that utility companies, businesses, and local governments have had different rules about what manhole covers should and shouldn’t be like over time, and when the rules and fashions change, so do the new manhole covers. It is now generally required that manhole covers be marked with the name of the company or agency that operates whatever it is they provide access to. But, a hundred years ago, they were more likely to be marked with the name of the foundry where they were made.

Mimi Melnick and Richard A. Melnick’s book of photographs of manhole covers offers an engaging tour of manhole covers in many cities in the United States — it is not a comprehensive survey by any means, but there is much to savor in their selection of portraits. (Manhole Covers could be improved by an index to the locations in which each photograph was taken, but even though I am fervently devoted to the importance of indexes, I found that this oversight was quickly forgotten as I leafed through the book.) Mimi Melnick’s introductory essay traces the history of manhole covers, their manufacture, and their role in the infrastructure of American cities, and the 121 pages of manhole cover photographs that follow may well start you on the habit of looking down as you walk.


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