A LITTLE ROMANCE...in the garden
The life and death of the sprinkler
by phyllis odessey

I am not a collector and I don't like junk, but I have a collection. Passion overtook me. I found romance in small metal objects called sprinklers. Before I knew it, sprinklers filled the shelves in my garage. I started putting nails in the rafters; soon sprinklers were lined up, like so many Rockettes ready to start the show. I began to wonder whether it was pure acquisitiveness that made me procure these objects or the fun of the hunt or something else altogether. What was the attraction?

Sprinklers have a royal lineage. Their ancestors were the aquatic entertainments of 16th century Italy, the MTV of their day. With the help of the fontanieri (virtuosic hydraulic engineers) royal personages splashed their way to glory. Family pride demanded not only a murmur, but also a roar. Waterworks sprayed, bubbled and gurgled, making sound in the garden as important as any plant or shrub. Servants floated food down stone tables filled with water. Princes and popes reclined, stabbing at pasta as it drifted by.

Although nobody did it better than the Italians, rivalries did exist. Aristocratic egos pushed one-upmanship to a new height. In France, Louis XIV moved earth (and some thought heaven) to create the next big thing. The Parisian hinterland was not blessed with an abundance of natural water nor a hilly landscape. Louis XIV was not fazed. At Versailles he ordered that ingenuity triumph over nature. Courtesans were dazzled, ministers awestruck, the Sun King bankrupt. It was said that boys ran ahead of the king, blowing whistles, warning plumbers to turn on the valves. Although there was water, water everywhere, there was not a drop to spare. The power of the king demanded that water be manipulated in ways only a god-like creature could command.

The desire to impress the visitor was a preoccupation not only of the princely. The rise of the Middle Class in America gave the upwardly mobile an opportunity to view the garden as a fertile expression of their status in the community. With the implementation of a public water supply, ordinary Americans downsized the gurgle of the large estate to a trickle in their own backyards. The green lawn, once the purvey of the rich, became commonplace in 1897 when J.W.Smith (an African) filed the patent for the first swiveling sprinkler. This was the sprinkler coming out party.

Sprinklers tell stories. The sprinklers of the jazz age reflected the whimsy and vivaciousness of flapper life. Like the swish and swirl of the Charleston, spraying ducks, spouting alligators, and misting squirrels populated flowerbeds. Designers and manufacturers soon realized that the sprinkler was not just a functional part of the garden, but along with pansies and petunias had clear ornamental value. Imagine the wrought-iron cowboy whose lasso "roped" in boxwood and larkspur. Inventiveness was de rigueur.

The gleaming chrome bubble called Art Deco included the sprinkler. Red Rocket, Lawn Genie and Wave Master suggested speed, efficiency and mobility. The shapes abstractly mimicked the excitement of the age. Manufacturers tried to outdo each other, making these little watering devices into coveted objects. Some manufacturers were not satisfied with an ordinary American name. The Pennsylvania Lawn Mower Company called their watering device, The Pluviette Lawn Sprinkler. Pluviette was taken from the French word for rain shower.

Once Americans had a chicken in every pot, and a barbecue in every backyard, the sprinkler dramatically cascaded onto every patio. The sprinkler could arc high, spin concentric circles or simply spout a jet of water. You could choose the pattern you wanted. The lawn became an interactive playground; the sprinkler an icon of domestic bliss. Swiveling and swirling sprinkler arms created plumes of water, splashed toddlers and sprayed picture windows. For those who wanted their water confined to certain areas, manufacturers created sprinklers for specific purposes. For instance, the small red aluminum number called “ It Gets In the Corners” and it did.

But this didn't last forever. As the backyard became mechanized, Americans slide into a sedentary lifestyle. Technology pushed the sprinkler underground. Irrigation systems became the rage, electronic timers installed, lawn maintenance crews hired. Those black snakes, soaker hoses became the darling of the ecologically correct. Gone were the Aluminum Mister, Rain Bird and Porcelain Tulip. Gone were the sensory and sensual delights of the sprinkler. The sprinkler was relegated to the discarded junk of the yard sale.

Like the jingle of coins in a toll basket, the sound of the sprinkler was lost. Humans may have forgotten the pure hypnotic delight of watching water rising and falling onto a lawn, but one species of dog instinctively gets it, the Welsh corgi. Advertised as the dog that “ just loves to play in water and delights in cavorting under the garden sprinkler.”

Poets have also not forgotten the seductive power of the sprinkler. Howard Nemerov comes closest in his poem Take the Beautiful Lawn Sprinkler.

What gives it power makes it change its mind
At each extreme, and lean its rising rain
Down low, first one and then the other way;
In which exchange humility and pride
Reverse, forgive, arise and die again,
Wherefore it holds at both ends of the day
The rainbow in its scattering grains of spray.

Others as well have championed the sprinkler. As far back as 1889 the sprinkler achieved notoriety. A proposal for Centennial Paris Exposition suggested a giant garden sprinkler be constructed to water the city in case of a drought. Today, water or lack thereof is still very much on our minds. The Warwick Beacon reported on the Ohio's' Water Department ban on using sprinklers: “ Catching the scofflaws proved difficult. Late night water authority patrols caught some offenders red-handed or wet-handed as it turned out.” Or the headline in the Enquirer, “ Labrador Savagely Attacks Pop-up Lawn Sprinkler.” Mother Earth News in an article entitled, “ Hand Over That Hose,” warns “ sprinkling increases the spread of plant disease.” The Rhode Island Banner asks its readers to “ forget Watergate, it's time to irrigate” Dr. Steve Link, Biology Professor at Washington State University advises “ that watering the lawn can be the cause of psychological problems.” FEMA cautions, if wildfires strike: “ place lawn sprinklers on roof. Wet roof immediately.”

All of these facts provided answers to my questions, but didn't totally satisfy my desire to understand the allure of the sprinkler. For that I had to look upward. Astronomers looking through the Hubble Telescope have compared stellar jets (which form the stars) to giant lawn sprinklers. "Whether a sprinkler whirls, pulses or oscillates, it offers insights into how its tiny mechanism works. Likewise, stellar jets billions or trillions of miles long offer some clues to what's happening close to a star." For me the sprinkler is anchored in this world, but has characteristics more in common with heaven than earth.