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Functional Beauties

Martha Stewart Living, June 2007

"It imitates the rain, falling from the heavens," a Parisian monastery gardener wrote in 1706 to describe a miracle that put life-giving power into human hands: the watering can. The elegant efficiency of this tool refreshes spirits as well as flowers, especially when it shows signs of faithful service: a sculpted body scuffed by wear and burnished by weather, a handle curved for a more comfortable grip, a spout brandishing a perforated rose, ever poised to scatter its bounty. All inspire reverence and delight, even in people who wouldn't recognize a thirsty plant if it crawled out of the desert.

Few garden implements boast a wider circle of admirers, because when a vintage watering can retires from a horticultural career (as many did during the 1950s, with the arrival of molded plastic into the workforce), it adapts with ease to all sorts of habitats. Ensconced within a living room windowsill, where the sun highlights its subtle patina and confident posture, a single example presides as folk art. Holding a bouquet on a kitchen table, a container might hint at a nearby cutting garden. Congregating with kindred vessels on a backyard bench, it stimulates conversation about the shapes, colors, and finishes.

Most of those distinctions reflect gradual evolution rather than seismic shifts in form. Indeed, the watering can's basic functional components haven't changed in 500 years. It's true that no one today would confuse her grandmother's galvanized version with a sixteenth-century earthenware watering "pot," the earliest-known prototype to survive. And yet Granny herself might be surprised to learn that her hardware-store standby looks remarkably similar to the copper and brass cans used for "dewing the seedlings" in Europe and North America in the 1700s.

Although precious few old clay pots have survived, more than enough later metal ones abound to keep collectors on the alert. (You won't catch them saying, "A rose is a rose is a rose.) The containers crop up in all of the expected venues: flea markets, antiques shops, and the Internet. They sell for anywhere from $10 to several hundred dollars. The range in styles is largely due to technological advances that occurred in the nineteenth century. Decades after inexpensive tin-plated cans broadened the market in the early 1800s, tougher zinc-coated iron and steel models supplanted them. In 1885, John Haws, a green-thumbed British civil servant, patented a precision design whose balance remains unsurpassed. Other developments were in response to changing fashions in landscaping and decor. Extended "long-reach" spouts let Victorian estate gardeners water grand borders; specialized fern and orchid cans kept potted exotics on conservatory shelves hydrated.

Social niceties left their mark, too, in the form of dainty houseplant watering cans, intended strictly for indoor use. The containers were often embossed, polished, enameled, or given some other surface treatment worthy of parlor display. Until barely a generation ago, these white-glove cans had nothing to do with their dirty-mitt outdoor companions. Thankfully, attitudes are far less upstairs, downstairs (or should we say inside, outside?) these days. Everyone is better off when vintage cans of character -- whether plain or fancy, leaky or tight -- are welcomed into the home. They may not hold a drop of water, but they're still full of life.

Sprinkling Silhouettes
Vessels in various shapes and patinas. A painted galvanized watering can from the 1930s doubles as a rustic vase for delphiniums, hydrangeas, and scabiosa. A tabletop arrangement includes an early filling-station can with a gooseneck spout used for engine fluids, a 1950s houseplant can, an early-twentieth-century can with yellow paint mellowed by time, a hot-water can used to fill washbasins in the days before indoor plumbing, and a modern reproduction of an eighteenth-century copper watering can with a large sprinkler head, or "rose."

Fluid Gestures
These utilitarian vessels have distinct characteristics. From left: A 1940s galvanized can bears a powdery patina. The high dome of a European version minimizes spills. A hot-water can has a lid to conserve heat. A tin garden can with a dented rose. An outdoor can is painted a vibrant blue. The long spout of a 1930s American can soaks hard-to-reach plants. An English can's adjustable rose provides a gentle spray for fragile seedlings. The same sturdy arc acts as a handle and a spout support on a German can. A child-size model. A German watering can from the 1950s.

Water Colors
A collection of painted containers offers a vivid palette. Weather-mottled hues enhance the spectrum of green on various plant-stand occupants. Their range in size is also striking; the massive vessel on the lawn could fit a few of the lithographed tin toys on the chair. Because many vintage outdoor cans have lost their roses, ones with the period pieces intact command a premium. Reds comprise a range of finishes, including the factory-fresh gloss of a 1960s garden can, top left, the play-worn patina of the toy below it, and the hand-painted flowers on the tole houseplant can above the sink.

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