Here in Charleston, when you say THE Cistern – everyone knows you are referring to the place in the center of the College of Charleston campus where they have concerts and the famed graduation ceremony where all the graduates wear white. The Cistern there was actually constructed in 1857 as a reservoir to provide water for fighting fires in the days before the city installed a water system. It was then covered over with grass.
However, if you inquire about the meaning of A cistern – you might be talking about those that you can still find in Charleston’s historic homes. Wisegeek says “A cistern is a large vessel which is used to hold a reserve of water. Cisterns can be either above or below ground, and they come in a range of sizes and shapes, with varying features. People have been storing water in cisterns for thousands of years. Many early cultures realized the value of saving rainwater, rather than allowing it to run off, and they built large jars and later big containers for the purpose of storing rainwater.”
In other words, the cistern pre-dated the oh-so-trendy rainbarrels.
The Charleston cistern does in fact come in many shapes and sizes and they are mostly underground. Often you’ll find a trapdoor in a home’s kitchen which leads to the old cistern that may have been converted into a wine cellar or dry storage. Sometimes the cistern is smaller, and looks much like a well. Here’s a picture of one from the back corner of our carriage house, built around 1845. If you look closely, you can see my reflection in the water about 10 feet below.
If you’ve got one in your home here, send it to me – I’ll post the collection.