Well, here’s one thing the Sewerage & Water Board does right
In 1921, Edwin Ford of the Ford Meter Box Co. of Wabash, Indiana, paid a sales call to the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board. During that visit, board engineer George G. Earl bent Ford’s ear about how the in-ground water meter boxes then in use were a poor fit for a city below sea level, a geographical quirk that, thanks to settling soil, often left the tops of water meters jutting several inches above ground. Ford listened, then sat down at an empty drafting table at the S&WB office and sketched out an idea for a better meter box, one that could be quickly adjusted to a new grade or sidewalk level. Local officials liked what they saw. They liked Ford’s prototype even more and placed an initial order for 100 of them. The finished product, notably topped by a 9-and-a-half-pound iron cover about 10 inches in diameter and festooned with a distinctive Art Deco design incorporating stars and a crescent, have jazzed up New Orleans sidewalks ever since.
The Sewerage & Water Board has taken its lumps over the years, but the lids for its “Crescent Boxes” — as Ford Meter Box calls them, having named them after the city for which they were invented — have become beloved local objets d’art for Orleansphiles, decorating everything from T-shirts and jewelry to wall art and kitchenware.
- By 1924, nearly half of Ford Meter Box’s sales were to the city of New Orleans. “In the ’20s, if we had lost New Orleans, I’m not sure we would have made it,” John Ford of Ford Meter Box is quoted as saying in “The History of a Small Indiana Company: 100 Years of Ford Meter Box.”
- Given the popularity of the covers’ design, the Sewerage & Water Board filed for trademark protection for it and pushed for passage of a state law prohibiting reproduction of the design without board approval.
- Because of those steps to protect the design, which was once considered in the public domain, artists who use it in their wares must pay the board royalties. Money raised is earmarked for environmental education, water conservation and a program that helps older residents and the disabled pay their water bills.
- Over the years, the covers have become common targets for thieves. In 2008, for example, police booked a man with possession of stolen property when, after he got into a one-car accident on St. Charles Avenue, police said they found six water meter covers in his car.
- It’s not just locals who covet the covers. According to a 2003 article in The Times-Picayune, security screeners at Louis Armstrong International Airport reported finding a half-dozen covers in luggage of departing tourists in just a few months’ time.
- “There was a time when we were replacing the covers in the CBD with plain ones to cut down on theft,” an S&WB spokesman said in 2003. In some instances, modified meter covers have been installed that allow for them to be locked into place.
- The theft of covers isn’t just a monetary problem. People who accidentally step in an uncovered water meter hole can suffer serious injuries, and the S&WB has been sued because of such injuries. (To report a missing cover, call 504.52.WATER, or visit the S&WB website.)
- Water meter covers can be purchased from multiple eBay sellers, most of whom claim that theirs are reproductions or purchased from the foundary, for $30 to $50.
New Orleans is a city of surprises. Walk around a corner in the French Quarter and you’re liable to stumble across a world-class street musician (or maybe a whole brass band of them). Peek behind the walls of an old Quarter home, and you might find an enchanting secret garden. In fact, if you just walk down the street you won’t even have to lift your eyes to find organic art, embedded right there in the sidewalk in the form of the city’s celebrated water meter covers. If nothing else, they’re further evidence that, while New Orleans might be “The City that Care Forgot,” artistry and imagination sure remembered it.