In the 19th century sanitation was sorely lacking. Water was sourced from open wells and rivers. Drinking water became contaminated and the cause of cholera outbreaks. As a result, many water pumps and wells were closed, and the population substituted water for alcohol. In contrast, the Temperance Movement initiated the erection of drinking fountains to provide clean, fresh water advertised as “God’s Only Beverage For Man and Beast.”
The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association came to the aid of hundreds of thousands of working horses that also needed refreshment. Many drinking fountains offered a trough for horse and cattle to drink from while providing a smaller basin at ground level for thirsty dogs. These fountains were often advertised as, ‘For Man and Beast.’
Equine disease thrived causing fevers, coughing, and an inflammation of the blood. Within days of exposure, horses died. On occasion, the bacterium crossed species’ lines, taking the lives of cats, dogs, goats, and men.
The fountain 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 cup was pulled from the basin, drained and returned to the basin. Occasionally, school children shared water from the same tin cup. It’s easy to understand how it became a health issue.
By 1900, it was understood that microscopic pathogens travel through air and water. Two major waterborne diseases devastated thousands of people: Typhoid Fever and Cholera which was one of history’s most virulent killers. Clean water became a matter of national safety in every country in the world.
In America, fear of contamination developed into a racial issue and drinking fountains were labelled as “White Only,” or “Colored Only.”
The Canadian Public Health Association deemed drinking fountains a public health hazard and replaced them.
An article from an Australian newspaper highlights the contamination levels and subsequent diseases.
“There is no doubt that the public drinking cup is one of the most insanitary articles to be found in civilized communities. Its drinking surface becomes a fertile spot for the growth of many kinds of bacteria. Each drinker leaves on the rim of the cup a portion of his saliva, which contains sufficient nutriment for the bacteria to feed upon. The harmful kinds of bacteria most likely to be present are consumption, diphtheria, erysipelas, syphilis, pneumonia, typhoid, measles, mumps and whooping cough. Added to this that the chains by which the cups are attached to the fountains are often long enough to allow the cups to hang in the basin near the bottom of the fountain, from which dogs drink, and it should be realised that there is an urgent necessity for a substitute for the public drinking cup.”
The Mail (Adelaide, South Australia) 12 February 1916
A fountain with a spigot that shot a jet of water straight into the air, like a miniature geyser, was developed in the late 19th century. Called a Bubbler, it separated clean water from run-off water. Users were only required to drink from the water jet thereby eliminating bacteria. This model has been refined, but is basically the same drinking fountain design used today.