Skip to main content

The Iron Age

June 2024
1min read

Manhole Covers

text by Mimi Melnick, photographs by Robert A. Melnick, foreword by Allan Sekula, MIT Press, 272 pages, $39.95 . CODE: MIT-1

Los Angeles is the only American city to have made its manhole covers protected landmarks. That happened thanks to the work of Robert and Mimi Melnick, a husband-and-wife team that produced a book celebrating them in the early 1970s. Following the book’s success the Melnicks headed out in search of artful manhole covers nationwide, and they found them, turned out by dozens of foundries, stamped in all styles, and going back a full century and a half. In Boston, writes Mimi Melnick, “we were looking at covers stamped with patent dates in the 1840s.”

That marks the rough beginning of the modern manhole era; large-scale water, sewer, and gas systems were rare before then. Some of the most charming early lids were the work of new gas companies trying to put a hopeful face on their supposedly risky fuel.

Robert Melnick’s photographs show each cover the way you would see it looking down. Judging from this collection, Louisville, Kentucky, is the Florence of manhole covers: its early lids sport doily patterns or Gothic traceries that remain lovely despite a century of rugged use. San Francisco’s original Spring Valley Water Works put 116 stars on each of its utility covers; the later Water Department’s meter covers, showing the Golden Gate Bridge, are copied for pricey reproductions. Mimi Melnick documents the foundries, past and present, from which these enduring creations emerged.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.