In the early 19th century contamination of drinking water caused epidemics of cholera, and due to the expense of tea and coffee many poor people and their children drank beer to quench their thirst. The Temperance Movement advocated moderation in alcohol consumption in the belief that alcohol was responsible for many of society’s ills including insanity and poverty. The movement which was popular in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States used political pressure to convince the government to enact laws to regulate alcohol. This social movement later radicalized with the ultimate intention of the legal prohibition of alcohol.
U.K. In 1859 the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association was established in London, England to provide free drinking water. The first fountain was erected in London in 1859 and became an immediate success and many subsequent fountains were placed opposite pubs or churchyards. By 1867 there were over 800 drinking fountains in UK, and ornamental and memorial fountains were donated by private benefactors. The name was changed to include cattle troughs in support of animal welfare: The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (M.D.F.C.T.A.).
As horse traffic declined due to the invention of the motor car, troughs were no longer built, and with the concern over hygiene the metal cups were replaced with bubblers (water jets.) During the First World War, the UK government licensed pub hours and beer was watered down.
From the Irish Temperance League Journal, Feburary 1863.
The success of the drinking fountain movement has been very great. It is a happy state of things that people, as they wander through the streets of many of our larger cities, can quench their thirst at a fountain, instead of being compelled to invest their money in the nasty decoctions vended in the whisky shop! The drinking fountain has a claim upon the sympathies of the benevolent, and we hope to see them multiplied indefinitely…..By all means let us try and shut out from hundreds the temptation to visit the public-houses – hot-beds of idleness, poverty, vice and crime.
Billy Martin, often called the grandfather of the cause in Ireland, was known for his speeches which included the quote, ‘Drink of the fountain, bubbling free; ‘Twas good for Samson, and ‘tis good for thee.’
Civic virtues such as temperance were often extolled in inscriptions on drinking fountains. The Scottish Saracen Foundry used an open bible displaying a verse from St. John’s Gospel chapter 4 verse 14, ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.’ The useful monition, Keep The Pavement Dry was a common feature.
Sydney AUS In 1914 Lord Mayor Alderman Richards stated that ‘in many cases persons would prefer drinking at a fountain to slaking their thirst at a bar, and more fountains would at least be a small set-off to the dangerous temptations of the public-house.’
USA The National Women’s Christian Temperance Union encouraged local chapters to erect fresh water fountains in public venues. Fountains were erected in popular areas to provide pure drinking water to men who claimed that drinking alcohol was a necessity because of the unavailability of clean drinking water. The Union’s concern for animal rights was addressed with drinking troughs at various heights which provided refreshment for horses and dogs. The fountains were always inscribed with the organization’s name.
A wealthy San Francisco dentist and businessman, Henry D. Cogswell, erected sixteen temperance fountains in various cities across America including the city of Washington DC in June 1884. As a temperance crusader, he believed that easy access to cool drinking water would deter people from consuming alcohol to slake their thirst. Originally located at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street in DC, the fountain was relocated 100 feet north during the rehabilitation of Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1980s.
On each side, four entablatures are engraved with the words Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance. Ice water, provided by coils under blocks of ice, spouted from the mouths of dolphins, and brass cups attached to chains offered a receptacle for refreshment. Water overflow spilled into troughs where horses could also partake of the cool water.
The fountain that ironically once sat in front of the Apex Liquor Store is now across from a Starbucks. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the end of the WW1 the USA had introduced prohibition. The movement’s popularity weakened in the 1930s. However, abstinence of alcohol is still a requirement of several societies such as the Salvation Army, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many other religions.