Decline of the Drinking Fountain

The decline of the drinking fountain can be identified in two historic eras i.e. the Victorian drinking fountain, and the modern day drinking fountain.

By 1900, it was understood that microscopic pathogens traveled through air and water. Clean water became a matter of national safety in every country in the world, and the two major waterborne diseases Typhoid Fever and Cholera were history’s most virulent killers.

The Decline Of The Fountain Drinking Cup
The Victorian & Edwardian drinking fountains featured three main components: A spigot that sent out a continual stream of fresh water, a basin for collecting the water, and a metal cup suspended by a chain often sitting in the water. The communal cup was pulled from the basin, drained and returned to the basin. Its drinking surface became a fertile spot for the growth of many kinds of bacteria as a portion of each drinker’s saliva remained on the rim of the cup. The most common and harmful kinds of bacteria were consumption, diphtheria, erysipelas, syphilis, pneumonia, typhoid, measles, mumps and whooping cough. It’s easy to understand how it became a health issue. This issue was exacerbated when humans and horses drank at a fountain/trough combination.

With regards to cast iron drinking fountains many ornamental iron decorations were requisitioned during the war and those that survived fell into disrepair due to high maintenance costs. The Victorian drinking fountain became extinct.

Introduction of The Bubbler
In the late 19th century a spigot was developed to shoot a jet of water into the air like a miniature geyser. This new innovation was named a bubbler because it produced a flow of bubbling water. It separated clean water from run-off water, and users were required to drink from the water jet by putting their lips only to the water stream thereby eliminating bacteria. Although this model was refined using an arc projection, it is basically the same drinking fountain design used today.

In Australia, the bubblers were produced by John Danks & Co. In North America, an invention by Luther Haws (Halsey Taylor Company and the Haws Company) is still prominent in the public drinking fountain business.

The Decline of the Bubbler
Although I don’t think that it is possible to define an exact date of the declining use of drinking fountains, I would hazard a guess that the waning began due to the public’s distrust of the cleanliness of the water supply and the sanitation of the bubbler.

This distrust is rational. People can unknowingly be sick and have bacteria in their throat which can contaminate the spout of the water fountain. Harmful pathogens including e-coli and legionella that cause gastrointestinal problems and pneumonia-like symptoms have been found on fountains within buildings where we would expect a certain level of maintenance and sterilization.

Outdoor fountains in parks are less likely to be managed as only spot checks are conducted and bubbler heads are not sanitized with any regularity. Maintenance is an ongoing issue whereby outdoor drains can clog, and the water supply may travel through rusty pipes or contain lead.

The advent of bottled water, and the convenience of carrying a water supply on your person, undoubtedly has affected the use of drinking fountains. In the early 2000s, beverage companies encouraged consumers’ fears of illness and contamination from tap sources. The decline of the drinking fountain was therefore very predictable.

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