Manhole Cover Designs and Contemporary Aesthetics

Neenah Foundry Standard Design. Courtesy of Keith Kaziak, 2020.

Over the past 45 years, there has been a growing worldwide fascination and appreciation for the beauty and craftsmanship of manhole covers. Some enthusiasts have even created a subreddit aptly titled, Manhole Porn: Sewer covers in all their glory!, celebrating this widespread iron object.

In her 1974 book Manhole Covers, Author Mimi Melnick documented the designs of manhole covers and the history of the foundries that made them beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. As part of this work she examined the covers’ practical design and also presented an artistic appreciation of the industrially produced iron discs. Her book and the resulting interest in manhole covers even led to a preservation project in the city of Los Angeles in 1985, when the city council declared the city’s manhole covers historic artifacts that were to be preserved and protected.[1]

There are a number of signs to “read” on manhole covers. For example, manhole covers produced in the 1840’s had raised surface textures to accommodate horse hooves.[2] More recently utility companies use the surface designs of the covers to indicate the type of utility to which the cover gives access. For instance, a waffle design indicates a sewer, a hexagonal design indicates telephone utilities, and a basket weave pattern indicates access to power utilities.[3]

Neenah Foundry UW-Primary Utility Cover, courtesy of Keith Kaziak, 2020.

Little effort has been made to catalogue vintage manhole cover designs, and so the history and age of these objects has been tied to their designs and the major movements in architecture when the covers were installed. Therefore, despite their origins in the early industrial era and their utilitarian function, manhole cover surface designs often followed popular architecture styles such as Victorian (in the nineteenth century), Art Nouveau and Art Deco.[4]

With increasing popular interest in early industrial design, cities around the world have commissioned foundries to produce new ornamental manhole cover designs. This in turn keeps foundries like the Neenah Foundry busy. The Neenah Foundry currently supplies manhole covers to all 50 states and 17 countries.[5]

City of Madison Manhole Cover. Photo courtesy of Keith Kaziak, 2020.

The foundry also supplies a significant portion of the over 16,000 covers in Wisconsin’s capital city. In 2006, the City of Madison began working with the design firm ZD Studios to create a manhole cover design reflective of the city. They chose a design with the Capitol dome dividing night and daytime skies.[6] You can find the covers along the streets of University Avenue, State Street, Capital Square, and throughout the UW-Madison Campus. The city plans to continue replacing old and worn out covers throughout the city with the new signature design. The new manhole covers are not only a creative approach to a seemingly utilitarian object, but also unique to the City of Madison, squarely planting Neenah Foundry’s one hundred and fifty-year tradition beneath our feet.

Written by Keith Kaziak, September 2021.


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FOOTNOTES

[1]Mimi Melnick, Manhole Covers (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994): xiv.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid, 3.

[5] Shane Nyman, “Manhole Cover Madness: What to Expect at Neenah’s Newest Celebration,” Appleton-Post Crescent, (September 6, 2018). Accessed September 1, 2021 https://www.postcrescent.com/story/entertainment/2018/09/06/neenah-manhole-cover-madness-what-expect-inaugural-celebration/1193195002/.

[6] Jay Rath, “New manhole covers make mark in Madison,” Wisconsin State Journal (September 20, 2006). Accessed September 1, 2021 at https://madison.com/news/public-works-public-art-madison-s-new-manhole-covers-beautify/article_5210e15f-d156-5ffb-a938-b4aa73e541cb.html.