We easily forget how life-changing some gardening inventions can be.  In the past I’ve looked at the origins of the spade, the wheelbarrow and hosepipe and today’s post, inspired by the latest heat wave,  is in the same vein.

So here’s your starter for 10. “Who invented the watering can?”  Then additionally… When? and Where?

You can skip the rest of the post if you know the answers… otherwise read on!

It’s true that the answer to the first part of the question is, of course, as so often, “nobody knows”.  The second part is slightly easier … if we’re talking about the “modern” metal watering can then it was probably sometime in the early 16thc although it could well have been earlier…. but nobody knows where!

A look at any of the great civilisations of the past will quickly show you that they all mastered the problems of irrigation for agriculture because  unless people had the ability to control water supplies and so  guarantee crops very little else was possible longer term.

But on a more domestic scale how did our ancestors water their gardens? Presumably moving the water from rivers, ponds, wells or water tanks  in whatever was to hand, much as they did with other liquids: goatskins, leather buckets, hollow gourds and of course earthenware  containers of various kinds.

There are a few early paintings showing people watering plants with “ordinary” jugs but we know that   pots specially for watering begin to  make an appearance in early medieval documents about gardens, which were of course largely utilitarian rather than ornamental.   They had presumably evolved  to be as efficient as possible given the constraints of material and ease of use.

Given the generally ephemeral nature of garden tools and equipment it’s surprising that so many have survived.                   These examples come from the Museum of London’s extensive collection which includes more than 60 survivals. They’re thought to range in date from late Saxon to mid-17thc, and I’d guess were mostly found in rubbish pits.   What these images don’t show, however, is the crucial part of the design.

The museum examples are all thumb pots,  one of those basic bits of technology that have something of an air of magic about them because they appear to defy the basic laws of physics.  While most are bell or jug shaped, and the more sophisticated versions  have handles  what those images don’t show is the base of any of them

In fact the bases are perforated with lots of holes, while, as you can see, the top has just a narrow opening, small enough to be easily covered and closed by a thumb. The pot is filled by immersing it  in water and then, as it is pulled out of  the water, the thumb  is placed over the top opening.  Amazingly, contrary to most people’s expectations, the water inside does not then pour out through the holes in the bottom. This is because  there is enough internal pressure to keep the water in place, in the same way that you can’t pour liquid out of a tiny hole in a can with no room for air to get in.  It’s only when the pot is over the plant to be watered that the thumb is lifted and the water drops out.

Such pots have been known about since antiquity and are more properly known as  chantepleures, but pretty obviously they have many disadvantages.  Nevertheless they were still in common use in the mid-16thc as Thomas Hill, the Tudor  gardening writer tells us:  “The common watering potte for the Garden beddes with us, hath a narrow necke, bigge belly, somewhat large bottome, and full of little holes, with a proper hole formed on the head, to take in the water, whiche filled full, and the thombe layde on the hole to keepe in the aire, may on such wise be carried in handsome manner…”  I thought that they must surely have dropped out of use soon after that because there were other sorts of watering pots available even in Hill’s day. But as so often I was wrong.

Surprisingly Hill doesn’t mention another design which, we know from surviving examples, was also  in use. It’s one that seems pretty obvious to us and that didn’t require the use of the thumb.  This was a fully closed container with a simple spout, rather like a jug or ewer for other liquids. To make sure it didn’t flood the plants it was supposed to water, the spout was not wide open but had small perforations. These pots with their rose –  from the French word arroser which means to water or sprinkle – bear an obvious resemblance to what we would think of as the modern watering can , although they are smaller, with very short spouts, and being made of earthenware much heavier especially when full.  It would have been hard work to water more than a few plants using such a system, and certainly watering an entire kitchen garden would not only have been tiring but time-consuming.


It’s also worth pointing out here that both the chantepleure and  pots with perforated spouts were not just for watering your garden or potted plants but also had domestic uses, particularly in laying dust.  With floors often made of beaten earth or covered in rushes or straw there was a huge amount of dust and dirt in the air and sprinkling water was the most effective way of keeping that under control.  In fact the habit didn’t die out when stone, tile or wooden floors became more common.  It was reported that this practice of using watering pots to keep down dust was still in use in well into the mid-19thc in London at least [for examples of that see  William Thomas Whitley, Art of England 1821-37]

Copper watering pot
with a passing resemblance to Hill’s description below


However  Hill also  records the first major design breakthrough, in terms which shows he understood its advantages over previous watering methods.

This was a watering pot with “the body wholly of copper, having a big belly and narrow neck, a strong handle of the same metal workmanly fastened to the belly and head to carry the pot if need be to place in the garden: but for a more easiness and quickness in carriage of the pot upright and full, is another strong ring or handle fastened artly to the lips of the pot…[which] serveth to sprinkle forth the water by the long pipe full of little holes on the head….”

In other words he’s describing a “modern-sounding” watering can, even if it was made of copper rather than a much cheaper metal or plastic. Unfortunately I can’t find an image of a surviving exact contemporary example.

You’d think that this would have caught on quickly and soon become the default but in fact it took quite a while, and simpler devices like the thumb-pot continued in use much longer.  For example, in 1660, the great natural philosopher and scientist, Robert Boyle, published the results of  experiments he had conducted with what he called “a Gardiner’s watering Pot”  that was “shap’d conically, or like a Sugar-Loaf”  trying to ascertain why whenfill’d with Water, no Liquor fals down through the numerous holes at the bottome, whilst the Gardiner keeps his Thumb upon the Orifice of the litle hole at the top … [from New experiments physico-mechanicall. p277]

At the same time the clergyman and botanist John Rea was also expecting his readers to still be using thumb pots. In his book Flora, seu, De florum cultura, of 1665  Rea writes about using them to water young and tender Seedlings of Auricula, and such like without washing the ‘Earth from them  for by the motion Of your Thumb you may cause the water to fall gently upon them. more or less as you shall desire.”

Yet its clear that the more modern-looking metal alternative was also in use as can be seen in The Retir’d Gardner (1706) a translation by George London and Henry Wise of two French books including Francois Le Gentil’s Le Jardinier Solitaire:   “Nothing is more useful in a Garden than a Watering-Pot, so that a Gardner cannot be without it. It imitates the Rain falling from the Heavens; when being bended down, it spouts forth Water thro’ a thousand holes, in a sort of Head that’s made to it. By this means, it succours the Plants in the most beneficial manner”

So who knows when thumb pots finally dropped out of use?  Of course you can still easily buy them today although I can’t really think what you’d do with them that’s of much practical use.

The term “watering can” is often reported to have first been used in 1692,  but despite that  all these devices, whatever their shape or design, are generally still being called “watering pots” right through until well into the Victorian age.

Most sources I’ve seen  suggest that the modern term was first used in his diary by a “Lord Timothy George” of Cornwall, but I can’t track either him or his journal down.[This makes me  wonder if anyone has actually read or seen his diary, indeed does anyone know anything more about him? There is no trace of him at the National Archives or Kresen Kernow, the Cornwall County Archives] Another blogger, Martin Fone, ascribes the term to a Timothy Keeble in the same year.  [I’m grateful to Martin for his comments and assistance in trying to track this mystery down, but neither of us has succeeded so far, so if anyone has a credible reference please get in touch] Unfortunately, as the Oxford English Dictionary shows,  the Scots beat whoever it was  to it, with the Society  of Antiquaries of Scotland claiming the first use of the term in 1685 in an inventory : “Belonging to the yairds..a wattering can”  [Proceedings.(1924) p368 ] 

Like the name, the design also remained largely unchanged until the late 1800s  – after all there’s not much that you do really to alter, although looking at images in the 18th and 19thc there are certainly a lot of variations on a theme.

What seems to have developed too is a functional divide between the “standard” model for outdoor use and a more delicate and even ornamental form for use in the greenhouse, conservatory or house.

There are examples of these domestic cans as early as the 18thc, usually on a smaller scale. But the idea seems to have taken off when a man, named John Haws, wanted to find a less cumbersome way of watering his vanilla orchids.

Originally from Clapton then on the outskirts of north east London Haws was in the colonial service in Mauritius and also trying, not very successfully, to grow vanilla.  He found watering his plants quite difficult because vanilla grows on climbing vines, that are usually more than 3m long/high and needs its aerial roots, which extend all the way along its growth, kept moist. These days you’d probably use a sprayer to do it but for Haws it meant regular watering with a can.

Unfortunately the standard design   with its  single handle that arched from the front to the back made it hard to maintain his  balance and reach the higher levels.  So he tried to improve it and when back in England, in 1886 he patented  a new design for “a watering pot that is much easier to carry and tip, and at the same time being much cleaner, and more adapted for use than any other put before the public.” This was primarily down to two things. The first was the addition of a second handle, effectively one on top for  “carrying”  and another on the back for to help “tipping”. The second was a much longer spout starting much lower down the body of the can which meant that it was easier to use up all the water without too much tipping – important when watering plants that were up on a higher level of shelving.

So successful was the design that Haws was able to set up a factory to manufacture them and in 1913 was going to be awarded the Royal Horticultural Society medal, at their first ever Chelsea Flower Show  although unfortunately  he died before he could receive it. The business, was taken over by his nephew  Arthur who was a stickler for perfection.  Amongst his 40 or so staff he even employed someone specifically to punch the holes in each rose.  [For those of old enough to remember the Goon Show it recalls the job that Eccles had putting holes in toothbrushes!] As their website says “This attention to detail helped fight off competition from cheap imported replicas, and maintain Haws’ reputation at the pinnacle of the world of watering cans.” The company has had its ups and downs but is still in operation today and claims to be  the world’s oldest watering can manufacturer.


But it’s not just design that can change. Think about materials. These days most of us probably use lighter weight plastic cans rather than heavier metal ones.  These seem to have entered commercial production in the late 1950s.  There were trendy, more stylish, versions too with Martin Rowland’s design for Ecko Plastics featured on the cover of Design magazine in October 1957. He rethought the classic shape and his version came with a graduated bucket,  a detachable hinged lid and spout, and was both both lightweight and because of its height considered space saving. It didn’t catch on commercially but there’s an example in the V&A where it still catches the eye as being “modern”.


So can design modifications continue to be made? The answer surely has to be yes, even you or I  can’t think how immediately. Just google watering cans and see the vast range that’s available and if that doesn’t convince you, go and look at the website of the Watering Can Museum!   I’m not joking – there really is one. It’s at Giessen, north of Frankfurt, and although its website is all in German there’s a visual treat in store for watering can aficionados!

For more information: There really isn’t anywhere that has a comprehensive history of watering cans [another  subject for a PhD?]. Martin Fone’s article in Country Life and his windowthroughtime website are definitely worth a read, as is the Garden Museum’s webpages but otherwise I’m afraid all you’re likely to find are repeats of a few facts, often inaccurate and simply copied from elsewhere with comments like “The history of the watering can is fascinating, and it would take pages and pages to tell you about it” although they never actually do!


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