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The Art Underfoot: NYC Manhole Covers


 6th Avenue.],Street furniture - Manhole covers., Digital ID 733288f , New York Public LibraryArt can be found in many places: on the walls at home, in museums and galleries. We walk through New York City and cities around the world looking at buildings, parks and street life, rarely looking down. But there is also art underfoot! Take a look at manhole covers. Manhole covers have intricate designs and other uses. Manhole covers may be a lost forgotten art.

Manhole covers protect people from falling down below, but manholes serve as a vital passageway to subterranean conduits for water pipes, telephone communications, electrical power and other utilities.

Manholes are made of cast iron with intricate designs and color. Manhole covers often have historical facts attached. When one looks at a manhole cover the details can be very informative. Some list the company's name, date and address of the foundry, and type of utility. Today's manhole covers have the name of the company, like Verizon or Con Ed. Next time take a look and spy the difference.

DWS CoverDWS Cover by, on FlickrDesigns Underfoot: The Art of Manhole Covers in New York City by Diana Stuart is a great source of valuable information. The author indicates that there are approximately 600,000 manhole covers in New York City and some can reach below as deeply as 800 feet. Diana Stuart has cataloged a large amount of manhole covers with so much information that one may never look at a manhole cover the same way again.

Next time you step on a manhole cover, try to decipher what type of service is provided down below.

If you see the initial "DWS" or "WSNY" with straight lines (sometimes the lines may look like a square), this designates Department of Water Supply and the sewer system.

Con Edison CoCon Edison Co by xiaming, on FlickrManhole covers with circles indicates electrical conduits; these are mostly used by Con Edison (Consolidated Edison, Inc.).

A symbol of hexagons refers to telephone communications.

ECS Co LtdECS Co Ltd by Nick Sherman, on FlickrNote the initials on some manhole covers: "ECS Co., Ltd" means Empire City Subway Co., Ltd, a subsidiary of Verizon Communications.

Who knew that walking the streets of NYC or anywhere for that matter, one would encounter intricately designed art in the form of cast iron manholes and not take a second glance at what is below one's feet.

Perhaps with a new set of eyes, we can all appreciate the artistic beauty and functionality that lies underfoot. 

seattle has great manhole coversSeattle Manhole Cover. Photo by fekaylius, via Flickr.


Dannhäuser GmbH Kanalabdeckung BensheimManhole Cover in Hesse, Germany. Photo by 4028mdk09, via Wikimedia Commons.

Saitama Manhole Cover, Japan. Photo by Stefano Costanzo.Saitama Manhole Cover, Japan. Photo by Stefano Costanzo.

Buy a NYC Manhole Cover Trivet souvenir from the Library Shop!

More art (and literature) underfoot on Library Way.


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Thank you for this

Thank you for this informative post! I have to admit, sometimes I have an irrational fear of manhole covers... only thinking about them when bad things happen in the news The Wikipedia entry is also very informative: It answers that trivia/job interview favorite, why are manhole covers round?

I had no idea the different

I had no idea the different patterns indicated the different functions/services of them. There are also the great ones by Lawrence Weiner - "in direct line with another & the next" - (there's a page about the project on the Public Art Fund site - I tried to put in a link here but your spam filter didn't like it).

Oh, sorry about that Heather

Oh, sorry about that Heather -- here is the link very cool!

More info on Manhole Covers in Print Collection

The Print Collection has related materials to manhole covers by these two artists: Louise Levergneux and Lawrence Weiner. Here is the website for Louise Levergneux: Manhole Cover coasters Lawerence Weiner's work:

Much Appreciated

Thank you for answering one of my long time questions!! It's one of those questions in the back of your mind that you promise yourself to find the answer, but you never do. Like Lauren, I find myself having irrational fear of manhole covers (possibly from reading to many stories.) Thanks to this post I can be one of the few people who can actually say "I know what those markings mean" Can't wait to see what you come up with next. The Library can help you with anything!!

upside down

The underside of manhole covers are also interesting. as I recently found out just east of the Library:

manhole cover art

I too find manhole covers, grates and water covers fascinating. In fact that has been my art theme for over three decades. I create street scopes with the covers in sculpture relief and embossed on my hand made papers. "Grate Wishes! Bobbi Mastrangelo

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