Fountain Society

The humble drinking fountain can tell us much about a society’s attitudes towards health, hygiene, equity, and virtue, and about its understanding of public goods and civic responsibilities.

Clockwise from top left: Fountain near Pike Place, Seattle; photographed in 2009. Fountain in the shopping center of the New Deal new town of Greenbelt, Maryland, 1942. Fountain in the White House, Washington, D.C. Mrs. Lee fountain, Georgetown, Washington, D.C. [Library of Congress]
Clockwise from top left: Fountain near Pike Place, Seattle; photographed in 2009. [Shannon Kringen © via Flickr under License CC 2.0]; fountain in the New Deal-developed town of Greenbelt, Maryland, 1942. [Library of Congress]; fountain in the West Hall of the White House, Washington, D.C. [Library of Congress]; Mrs. Lee fountain, Georgetown, Washington, D.C. [Library of Congress]

One day late last summer, my partner and I boarded a tour bus at the Catskills Visitor Center in Mount Tremper, New York. For the next few hours, we snaked along upstate creeks and climbed leafy grades to visit a couple of the nineteen reservoirs that supply drinking water to New York City. Along the way, our group splashed in the grand fountain that marks the spot where the water of the Ashokan Reservoir flows into the Catskills Aqueduct at the start of its 92-mile journey downstate. We spoke with historians about the people who were relocated, and the towns that were flooded, to make way for the century-old system. We stood where locals launch fishing boats into the Pepacton Reservoir, and passed through the city-owned watershed forests where they hunt — in other words, through landscapes that not only accommodate vital infrastructure for the great metropolis to the south but are also integral to the lives and livelihoods of upstaters. 1 At our last stop, on the banks of Warner Creek, in Phoenicia, we met with hydrologists working to reduce erosion in the watershed’s streams and thus preclude the need for expensive filtration.

Our tour was part of Walking the Watershed, a project led by Lize Mogel, an artist, educator, and counter-cartographer who has been exploring “the physical, social and political geographies of the watercourses, lands and communities that supply New York City with water.” 2 Mogel’s endeavors constitute a form of what I’ve called, in this journal, infrastructural tourism: a set of practices that enable an embodied, in situ experience of the complicated systems — usually massive, sometimes remote, and often as not public — that allow us to power an appliance, send an email, drive a car, recycle a soda can, flush a toilet, or get a drink of water. Ideally, that experience then translates into a greater awareness of the intricate workings of the designed world and the forces and stakeholders that propel and depend upon its myriad operations — and maybe even an inclination to contribute to their maintenance and advocate for their improvement.

Decades ago my dad dug a very deep hole in our backyard and, more than 350 feet down, found an underground stream that to this day provides clean, sand-filtered water — at nineteen gallons per minute — to our taps. Many rural and tribal communities dig wells and harvest rainwater. Some rely on private vendors to deliver water in tanker trucks and plastic bottles. 3 When you have to construct your own water infrastructure, you become intimately familiar with local politics, economics, ecology, and geology; you might also become familiar with the limits of public investment and regulatory oversight. But when you live far from the source of your water, as nine million New Yorkers do, you typically engage with that vital infrastructure only as a consumer: at the kitchen faucet or the bathroom spigot.

Or at a drinking fountain.

Drinking fountains are unsung public amenities — humble contraptions that provide free access to a vital resource.

Which is what I want to focus on now, for in many cities here and abroad drinking fountains are unsung public amenities — humble contraptions that, if working properly (and that’s a big if), provide free access to a vital resource. In fact, they’re often crucial to our daily routines. During the pandemic lockdown, I spent as many hours as possible outside. I read dissertations and prepped for class on the leafy grounds of a nearby cemetery and beamed into faculty meetings while walking along the Hudson River; and I sought refreshment from the drinking fountains I’ve located through a couple decades of urban walks. At one point I half-facetiously considered writing a Zagat-style guide to the fountains of New York, in which I would have raved about the strong, cold flow from the bi-level bubbler at the Jane Street comfort station in Hudson River Park, and praised the installation Source to Spout, for which multimedia artist Adrian Sas wrapped the fountains of Riverside Park with photographs of the upstate watershed. 4

From Source to Spout: The Water Fountain Project, by Adrian Sas, which was on exhibition in Riverside Park, June – November 2021.
Part of the series Source to Spout: The Water Fountain Project, by Adrian Sas, which was on exhibition in Riverside Park, New York City, June – November 2021. [Courtesy Adrian Sas]

Yet that very same public health crisis that pushed me out of my apartment also precipitated the closure of countless fountains, both within buildings and outdoors. Early on, officials investigated their potential role in transmitting Covid-19 through either the water or surface contact; since then studies have shown little risk of infection, especially when fountains are properly maintained and cleaned — which, granted, isn’t always the case. 5 My colleague Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, who studies fitness cultures, expressed a growing sentiment when, on Twitter, she commented that “the prolonged closure of water fountains in Hudson River Park due to covid really drove home what an essential service they provide to so many people,” from athletes to tourists to dog-walkers to, most acutely, the unhoused. 6

Public things, as political scientist Bonnie Honig argues, ‘furnish the world of democratic life.’

Drinking fountains are one example of what political scientist Bonnie Honig calls “public things” — things that “may not be fully publicly owned but [are] public insofar as [they] are subject to public oversight or secured for public use.” Honig’s list includes public phones, public universities, public libraries, national parks, roads, radio networks, water treatment plants, and so on. To this catalog we can add reservoirs and aqueducts. Many public things are utilitarian; they are also interfaces to what economists call public or common goods, like security and education and health care, that ideally are accessible to all without restriction. 7 Our democracy, Honig argues, “is rooted in common love for, antipathy toward, and contestation of public things,” which we then “deliberate about, constellate around, or agonistically contest.”

The nineteen reservoirs of the New York City watershed certainly generated decades of deliberation and contestation; as Lucy Sante wrote in this journal, “the system affected a political polarization between upstate and down, city and country, that was already well underway before the first shovel of soil was removed, and appears as a microcosm of the urban/rural polarity that continues to unbalance the nation as a whole.” 8 As Honig further argues, public things “are part of the ‘holding environment’ of democratic citizenship; they furnish the world of democratic life. They do not take care of our needs only. They also constitute us, complement us, limit us, thwart us, and interpellate us into democratic citizenship.” 9

New York City, on a hot summer day, ca. 1908–1915. [
New York City, on a hot summer day, ca. 1908–1915. [Library of Congress]

In Central Park on a Sunday in September 1942.
Central Park, New York City, on a Sunday in September 1942. [Library of Congress]

Fire Hydrant Drinking Fountain, a project created by Watershed Plus, Calgary, Canada, 2016.
Fire Hydrant Drinking Fountain, a project created by Watershed Plus, Calgary, Canada, 2016. [Watershed Plus via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Water fountains have long embodied enduring tensions around public things and their politics and ecologies, around promises of purity and fears of contamination. Fountains can tell us much about a society’s attitudes towards health, hygiene, wealth, virtue, and taste, and about its understandings of municipal and epidemiological responsibilities. Urbanist Josselyn Ivanov has described them as fulfilling “dual roles as public art and functional good.” As she rightly argues:

There are compelling reasons to rethink our relationship with drinking fountains. … Seemingly insignificant urban elements, [they] are a key indicator of cultural attitudes about the public good: do we care only for ourselves and our families, or do we pool our resources and work together to bring benefits to the entire community? 10

Drinking fountains do indeed prompt us to ask: is water an economic commodity or a collective resource to which all creatures — humans and non-humans alike — have a right?

It’s one of the basic lessons of history: all ancient societies arose in proximity to reliable sources of drinking water. Neolithic settlements dug wells, the Amorites at Ebla and the Minoans of Crete constructed immense cisterns, and the Incas engineered an intricate system of canals at Machu Picchu. The fountains of ancient Greece were designed to celebrate nature, to honor heroes, and to memorialize local myths and traditions. 11 Early Buddhists were instructed, through the Edicts of Ashoka, to dig roadside wells to nourish travelers and their animals. Islamic cities, recognizing the divine providence of water, featured sabils, which often took the form of sturdy kiosks built over underground cisterns, from which an attendant dispensed water through grilled windows; many were sited near mosques to support ritual purification. Whatever their form, the sabils constitute what scholars Tessa Farmer, Mel Throckmorton, and Fazlah Rahaman describe as “a community-built system based on religious and moral values that promotes water resilience.” 12 And of course, imperial Rome was famous for its sophisticated aqueducts and intricate fountains, “the first great city defined by its management of water,” in the words of environmental lawyer and historian James Salzman. Salzman describes the complexity of Roman aqueducts:

Aqueduct water was piped into large catch basins and then into storage reservoirs known as castella. From these, three piping systems branched out, each dedicated to a different use. One set of pipes was used for the city’s basins and fountains (usus publici); the second set was dedicated to private uses (privati); and the last set to bath houses (balneae). A priority system ensured that public needs were served first, then private uses, then baths. 13

These infrastructural artifacts were undeniably impressive; they were also unmistakably political. As Salzman writes, “these … public works were intended, first and foremost, as political statements, to remind the common people that they received their water from imperial beneficence in the name of the Emperor, Aqua Nomine Caesaris.14

Public fountain of Mihrişah Valide Sultan and Library of Hüsref Paşa, Eyüp, Istanbul; photographed ca. 1880–1907.
Public fountain of Mihrişah Valide Sultan and Library of Hüsref Paşa, Eyüp, Istanbul; photographed ca. 1880–1907. [Library of Congress]

Left: Public fountain in Damascus, Syria. [Library of Congress] Right: Fountain at the Pantheon, Rome.
Left: Public fountain in Damascus, Syria. [Library of Congress] Right: Fountain at the Pantheon, Rome. [Hervé Simon via Flickr under License CC 2.0]

Across millennia, urban fountains became essential sources of sustenance and sanitation, and their provision and regulation provoked lively public debate.

Across millennia, urban fountains thus became essential sources of sustenance and sanitation, and their provision and regulation continued to provoke lively public debate; which is to say their politics became ever more complicated. Certainly this can be seen in Western cities in the industrial era. In London, as the city grew increasingly populous and polluted throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the supply of water grew increasingly precious and contested. For many Londoners, the chief source of water for drinking and washing was the local parish pump, which typically drew from public wells; but too often these shallow wells were, as historian Anne Barry writes, permeated by cesspools, their waters “highly charged with sewage … discolored and foul-tasting.” 15 By the mid-19th century, Victorian reformers were warning of its dangers — concerns that intensified when the physician John Snow traced a cholera outbreak to water drawn from the Broad Street Pump, in Soho. Snow’s argument, at once terrifying and clarifying, would prove vastly influential (he is widely considered a founder of modern epidemiology as well as data visualization). Nonetheless it would take the city several decades to make a public commitment to providing clean water. Meanwhile many Londoners relied upon private companies for “company water”; one could buy a cup of water on the street or a bottle of mineral water in a pharmacy, or have a barrel delivered to one’s home. Depending upon how much you could pay, your water might be sourced from a pristine country spring or from the Thames, widely reviled as one of the dirtiest rivers in England, “a deadly sewer,” in the words of Charles Dickens. 16

To the north, another reform-minded Victorian was determined to improve the provision of water in his native Liverpool. Charles Pierre Melly, the son of a prosperous cotton merchant, was impressed, during a visit to Geneva in the early 1850s, by “the beautiful stone water Fountains which are so abundant in that city.” In striking contrast, he realized that a thirsty Liverpudlian would find no relief “with the exception of two horse troughs at the docks.” The industrious Melly then dedicated himself to showing “the importance of a gratuitous supply of water, by means of Public Fountains in our great commercial and manufacturing towns.” 17 The first of Melly’s fountains, made of “polished red Aberdeen granite,” was constructed in 1854 on Prince’s Dock in Liverpool, and over the next quarter century he would install more than three dozen public fountains in cities in England, Ireland, and Scotland. One of the fountains, in Southampton, is today protected as a Grade II Listed structure.

Mid-19th century public drinking fountains sponsored by Charles Pierre Melly: left, on Prince's Dock, Liverpool; right, in Birkenhead.
Mid-19th century public drinking fountains sponsored by Charles Pierre Melly: left, on Prince’s Dock, Liverpool; right, in Birkenhead. [Photographs by Jonathan O’Neill, 2005, and Simon Petris, 2007, via Liverpool Monuments]

Left: Advertisement for the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, 1879. First drinking fountain in London, adjoining St. Sepulchre's Church, Snow Hill.
Left: Advertisement for the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, 1879. [Public domain via Wikimedia] Right: The first drinking fountain in London, adjoining St. Sepulchre’s Church, Snow Hill. [Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia]

Melly’s motives in providing potable water were not simply humanitarian; he sought as well to offer an alternative to the beer and liquor on tap at the pub. In a paper delivered in 1858 to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Melly expounded upon the early success of public fountains in language at once compassionate and paternalistic.

The laborers, shipwrights, and porters employed in our docks and warehouses live at a considerable distance from their work; often two or three miles. When leaving their home, therefore, in the morning, they generally carry their dinner out with them, and only return home after their day’s work is done. It is evident that during those ten or twelve hours they must quench their thirst with something or other, once, if not oftener. Four years ago it was almost impossible for anyone to procure a glass of water without going into a shop and buying something — spending, in fact, what he might otherwise have economized.

Under these circumstances it was natural, almost necessary, for the thirsty laborer to drink a glass or two of beer at one of the establishments so conveniently placed at the corner of the streets he passed, and thus to spend at least a tenth part of his day’s wages, to say nothing of the temptation to which he exposed himself. 18

A year later, a similar mix of motives inspired the founding, in London, of the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, and that same year the group constructed the first public drinking fountain in London, a red granite basin set within the railings of a church in Holborn. The fountain was an immediate success, and hundreds more would be built in the next decades; Queen Victoria herself donated the funds to install a stone fountain on the grounds of a church in Surrey. Because the movement enjoyed the support of evangelical Christians, public fountains were often called “temperance fountains,” and many were engraved with Biblical quotations. As art historian Paul Dobraszczyk has argued, the 19th-century reformers were building upon deep historical understandings of water as a spiritual cleansing agent. “In many Victorian towns and cities,” he writes, “public drinking fountains were perceived as signs of purity and temperance, moral agents in the street that would promote better behavior.” 19

Because they were promoted by reformers who sought to provide an alternative to beer and liquor, public fountains were often called ‘temperance fountains.’

Across the Atlantic, in New York City, the practicalities and politics of water provision were no less contentious. Throughout the colonial era, settlers collected fresh water from a deep pond in what is now Lower Manhattan, or from shallow wells that were required to be maintained by the neighborhoods they served. Ostensibly public yet effectively privatized, the system struggled to meet the needs of the growing metropolis, and was soon overstressed and unsanitary. In the mid-18th century, the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm, traveling in America to collect seed and plant specimens, offered a succinct assessment of New York: “There is no good water in the town.” 20 Unsurprisingly, as in London, wealthy residents arranged for their own comfort. “Like moderns favoring bottled water over the common tap,” writes historian Gerard T. Koeppel, “fastidious late colonials eschewed the neighborhood well for ‘tea water’ brought by pail and barrel from springs on the fringes of town.” 21

After the Revolutionary War, in the early years of the republic, a cohort of enterprising politicians, led by Aaron Burr, sought to capitalize on the city’s ever-increasing need for new supply and, in 1799, founded the Manhattan Company for the professed purpose of providing “pure & wholesome Water” to be drawn not from the polluted city pond but from the unspoiled Bronx River to the north. 22 As it happened, their actual purpose was to break into the banking industry. Ultimately the Manhattan Company would devote barely ten percent of its resources to water infrastructure; instead, it would grow into the Chase Manhattan Bank.

Collect Pond, in present-day Lower Manhattan, was the source of drinking water during the colonial era; watercolor, ca. 1798.
Collect Pond, in present-day Lower Manhattan, was the main source of city drinking water during the colonial era; watercolor attributed to Archibald Robertson, ca. 1798. [Public domain, Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia]

Croton Reservoir, on the site now occupied by the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street; watercolor by Augustus Fay, 1850.
Croton Reservoir, on the site now occupied by the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street; watercolor by Augustus Fay, 1850. [Public domain, New York Public Library]

Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York, photographed in 2020.
Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, New York, photographed in 2020. [Jay Dobkin via Wikimedia under License CC 4.0]

Over decades the corporate negligence of the Manhattan Company would be impossible to ignore. So would its noxious water.

In the first decades of the 19th century, the corporate negligence of the Manhattan Company would be impossible to ignore. So would its noxious water. “I have no doubt that one cause of the numerous stomach affections so common in this city is the impure, I may say poisonous nature of the pernicious Manhattan water which thousands of us daily and constantly use,” wrote an anonymous “Water Drinker” in an 1831 letter to a local newspaper. After a devastating cholera outbreak in 1832, municipal leaders finally resolved to pursue what author Washington Irving called “the cause of good water.” In 1837, New York began to build a very big public thing, and five years later the completion of the Croton Aqueduct was celebrated with a cannon salute at the Battery, an immense parade up Broadway, and the unveiling of an ornate fountain at City Hall. “Nothing is talked of or thought of in New York but Croton water: fountains, aqueducts, hydrants and hose attract our attention,” wrote the city’s mayor. “Water! water! is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city.” 23 Three decades later, the monumental fountain at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park, topped with an eight-foot bronze figure called “Angel of the Waters,” was designed to commemorate the opening of the Aqueduct.

At Bethesda Fountain, the central figure of the angel is surrounded by four cherubs, representing peace, purity, health, and temperance. By this time the virtues of temperance were being promoted by reformers in New York as well as London. In the spring of 1859, the editors of the New York Times, inspired by the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association, published an editorial calling for “at least a thousand drinking fountains scattered over the city, supplied with cups for the use of the wayfaring public; and these fountains … might be rendered at a very trifling expense highly ornamental, and in the highest degree beneficial.” And, the Times added: “They would, it is true, be the ruin of hundreds of drinking saloons where bad liquor is sold.” 24 A few weeks later the first public drinking fountain in the city would be unveiled, in a park near City Hall. It wasn’t, however, ornamental in the least; “simply a large hydrant,” wrote the New York Times, “to which is attached a patent spout.” 25

Over the next decades the drinking fountain movement gained momentum, not to mention ornamental ambition. In the late 1880s, Henry D. Cogswell, a dentist from New England who’d gotten rich in California during the Gold Rush, allied himself with a local group called the Moderation Society and funded two elaborate “temperance fountains” in New York, one in Tompkins Square Park and another in front of the main post office at Eighth Avenue and 34th Street. In his lifetime the zealous Cogswell would sponsor almost 50 similar fountains in cities from Boston to San Francisco. His energetic example inspired philanthropists around the country, including Simon Benson, who made a fortune in the logging industry in Oregon and funded the installation of a series of fountain in downtown Portland; designed by local architect A.E. Doyle, many of these now iconic four-bowl “Benson Bubblers” are still in use.

Temperance fountain in Tompkins Park, New York, sponsored by Henry Cogswell and constructed ca. 1888; photographed in 2016.
Temperance fountain in Tompkins Square Park, New York, sponsored by Henry D. Cogswell and constructed ca. 1888; photographed in 2016. [Ron Cogswell via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

Temperance fountain on Boston Common, sponsored by Henry Cogswell and constructed ca. 1884; photographed in 1890.
Temperance fountain on Boston Common, sponsored by Henry D. Cogswell and constructed ca. 1884; photographed in 1890. [Public domain, Boston Public Library via Wikimedia]

Temperance Fountain at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876.
Temperance fountain at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876. [Public domain, Free Library of Philadelphia via Wikimedia]

Victorian fountain reformers often aligned with other contemporaneous movements. One of the first actions of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was founded in 1866, was to install horse troughs throughout New York City. Around that time the MFDFA, in London, recognized the potential for cross-species charity and transformed itself into the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association. Soon Philadelphia formed its own Fountain Society to supply fountains and troughs throughout the city, and numerous other municipalities saw the proliferation of multi-species fountains that accommodated the thirst of people, horses, dogs, cats, and birds.

Some of these fountains, public things subject to contestation, were received warily by citizens who objected to the aesthetics of their designs or the moralizing of their benefactors, or both. Cogswell’s fountains, many of which he designed himself, and some of which incorporated his own likeness, were often ridiculed for their pomposity. “Weeding Out Bad Sculpture” ran the headline of a New York Times article in March 1894, which then stated bluntly: “The Cogswell fountains are first to go.” 26 A Cogswell gift to Dubuque, Iowa, proved so unpopular it was taken down and carted away; another, in Rockville, Connecticut, was thrown into a lake. As historian Howard Malchow writes, such vandalism was to some extent “a protest against the intrusion of middle-class temperance moralizing and religiosity, and a physical attack on the symbols of wealth, ostentation, and charity.” 27

One of the iconic, bronze Benson Bubblers of Portland, Oregon, sponsored and funded by businessman Simon Benson in the early 20th century.
One of the iconic Benson Bubblers of Portland, Oregon, sponsored and funded by businessman Simon Benson in the early 20th century. [Library of Congress]

Advertisements for Halsey W. Taylor Co. water fountains, ca. 1942, and Haws electric water coolers, ca. 1947.
Advertisements for Halsey W. Taylor Co., ca. 1942, and Haws Drinking Faucet Co., ca. 1947. [via Wikimedia]

Kansas was the first state to ban the communal cup — a public thing that encouraged egalitarianism while also distributing risk of disease.

Evolving understandings of epidemiology and public health in the early 20th century sparked further formal evolution. In 1909, Kansas became the first state to ban the communal cup — a public thing that embodied egalitarianism and camaraderie while also distributing risk of disease. A few years earlier, in 1906, Luther Haws, a part-time plumber in Berkeley, California, created the first modern sanitary fountain, in which bubblers projected water upwards to allow users to avoid contact with the fountain itself; in 1912, an inventor in Warren, Ohio, Halsey Taylor, whose father had died from typhoid fever, developed his own version, the “Puritan Sanitary Fountain,” or “double bubbler,” which dispensed two arced streams of water. But soon a civil engineer named J.H. Dunlap published a paper charging that the new fountains weren’t yet living up to their name: people were surrounding the bubbler with their lips, in part because the water pressure was insufficient to allow for much hydraulic elevation. Dunlap recommended that future designs incorporate a mouth guard, a slanted jet of water to prevent backwash from falling onto the water source, and enough pressure to keep mouths away from metal parts. 28

Soon both the Haws and Halsey Taylor companies were major producers of redesigned sanitary fountains. And by now water itself was also being evaluated by new hygienic standards: cities had been deploying filtration systems for millennia, but in the early 20th century many municipalities began using chlorine to disinfect their water supplies. In the 1940s, some cities started adding fluoride, too, which has itself been a matter of public contention for decades. Cold War-era protesters saw a communist conspiracy to poison Americans; other opponents feared non-consensual medication. “Don’t let them force fluoridation down your throat,” warns one graphic poster showing a man being restrained while unseen figures do exactly that. 29

Boy drinking from a public drinking fountain on the street in Grundy Center Iowa, September 1939.
Grundy Center, Iowa, September 1939. [Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress]

County courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina, 1938.
County courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina, 1938. [Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress]

In the 20th century, philanthropic interest waned, and water fountains became less civic and monumental, more practical and mundane.

In these same decades, the increasing sophistication of municipal infrastructure and the ubiquity of indoor plumbing changed the role and presence of public drinking fountains. Philanthropic interest waned, and water fountains became less civic and monumental, more practical and mundane. They became, as Josselyn Ivanov puts it, “small, utilitarian objects, mostly positioned indoors in semi-public spaces such as libraries and civic buildings and outdoors in parks.” 30 But if fountains were more modest in scale, they were no less politically and culturally charged. In the Jim Crow South, water fountains, like much else, were segregated by race, and often as not there were marked differences between the “Colored” and “White” facilities. In her memoir of growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks recalls her youthful encounter with the city’s drinking fountains.

Like millions of black children, before me and after me, I wondered if “White” water tasted different from “Colored” water. I wanted to know if “White” water was white and if “Colored” water came in different colors. It took me a while to understand that there was no difference in the water. It had the same color and taste. The difference was who got to drink it from which public fountains. 31

The Civil Right Act of 1964 made the segregated fountains illegal, and (slowly) the signs came down. A quarter-century later, public fountains became yet more inclusive with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Now the siting, the shape, the clearance area, the hardware elevation, the height of the water flow, and the location of operable parts all had to be accessible to users in wheelchairs. The ADA is why we see so many two-tier fountains today.

Like the water fountain, bottled water is an emblem of social values, embodying at once the commercialization and commodification of a crucial resource and the privatization and personalization of public concerns. In Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, environmental scientist Peter Gleick describes the astonishing growth over the past four decades of the bottled water industry, which he attributes to various factors, including the decline of public infrastructure and the triumph of consumerism. Gleick also describes the effects of the industry on fountains, “as public water [was] increasingly pushed out in favor of private control and profit,” and as bottled water became available from corner stores, campus vending machines, hotel minibars, and airline beverage carts. “Water fountains have become an anachronism, or even a liability,” Gleick writes, “a symbol of the days when homes didn’t have taps and bottled water wasn’t available from every convenience store and corner concession stand.” 32

Bottled water embodies the commercialization of a crucial resource and the privatization of public concerns.

Bottled water is, of course, more than a convenience; the branded containers of glass and (much more often) plastic, with their recognizable shapes and colors, serve as reassuring markers of status. Starting in the mid-1970s, the now-familiar green bottles of Perrier — for which a legendary marketing campaign concocted the tagline “naturally sparkling from the center of the Earth” 33 — began to appear in upscale American supermarkets; by the time Aquafina (made by Pepsi) and Dasani (a Coke product) arrived, the industry was making massive profits by appealing to rising interests in wellness and by exploiting concerns about polluted municipal water. 34

Perrier has been aggressively marketed in the past few decades, including an ad campaign with the tagline "the earth's first soft drink."
Perrier has been aggressively marketed in the past few decades. One ad campaign featured the tagline “naturally sparkling from the center of the Earth”; another called the mineral water “Earth’s First Soft Drink.” (Snowacinesy via Wikimedia under License CC 3.0]

One confounding but predictable result of the commercialization of water has been to undermine — and even reverse — the legacy of the fountain advocates who sought to ensure a public supply of free potable water. “Early in the 20th century, in the United States, chlorinated public water supplanted bottled spring water,” writes anthropologist Martha Kaplan. “In the 1990s, bottled water roared (back) into fashion.” In “Lonely Fountains and Comforting Coolers,” Kaplan closely observes the shifting habits and attitudes on her own college campus, where over the years faculty, staff, and students came to distrust the drinking fountain, “a technological marvel that dispenses free, safe, cold bubbling water to an inclusive public,” and instead to prefer the commoditized offerings of single-serve bottles and departmental or dormitory water coolers, which were described as contributing to “health, care, and community.” 35

Confidence in the superior quality of commercial water is often unjustified; in the U.S., tap water is more rigorously regulated than bottled water.

Concerns about the safety of public water are hardly unfounded (as residents of Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, know too well). Yet more often than not they are unsubstantiated; so too is confidence in the superior quality of commercial water. As Peter Gleick points out, “By the middle of the twentieth century, spectacular efforts to improve water-quality treatment and major investments in modern drinking-water systems had almost completely eliminated the risks of unsafe water.” 36 What’s more, in this country tap water — public water — is more rigorously monitored: that’s because tap water regulations are set by the Environmental Protection Agency while bottled water is under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration, whose standards and enforcement are comparatively weak. The relative laxness of bottled-water standards became apparent to consumers three decades ago when a state laboratory in North Carolina detected excessive levels of benzene in bottles of Perrier. Nor was this an isolated case. Over the years, according to Gleick, “a remarkable list of contaminants” has been found in commercial water; “in addition to benzene,” he writes, “bottles have been found to contain mold, sodium hydroxide, kerosene, styrene, algae, yeast, tetrahydrofuran, sand, fecal coliforms and other forms of bacteria, elevated chlorine, ‘filth,’ glass particles, sanitizer, and … crickets.” 37

Clearly the drinking fountain and the water bottle are more than two different options for quenching thirst. They’re embodiments of two different systems, two different sociopolitical narratives, about the provision of water. The fountain is an exemplar of public infrastructure and collective responsibility. The ubiquitous bottle of branded water is an accoutrement of consumer culture — a small but telling instance of the triumphant market mentality that has in the past half century remade so many aspects of our lives.

There is growing resistance, in many cities, to the commodification of water.

Yet there is growing resistance, in cities here and abroad, to the commodification of water. A decade ago and a half ago, a group of Angelenos, concerned about the socioeconomic inequities of bottled water, formed the nonprofit WeTap to improve “awareness, access and use of public water and drinking fountains”; among other activities, the organization sponsors an annual “Tap Water Day” and a series of “Tap Water Talks.” A few years later, a city councilperson introduced a motion to “establish and reinvigorate water fountains in the public spaces” of Los Angeles, and more recently the city’s Department of Water and Power announced plans to “install or refurbish” 200 fountains, or “hydration stations.” 38 Los Angeles has also joined other large cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, in banning the use of municipal funds for bottled water. Both San Francisco and Washington have launched “Drink Tap” education campaigns to incentivize the use of public water; as part of the initiative, DC Water publishes an annual “Drinking Water Quality Report,” which details the sourcing and treatment of the city’s supply.

Clockwise from top left: Guide from the U.K.-based nonprofit #OneLess, dedicated to eliminating the use of single-use plastic water bottles; open-source map created by Open Data DC, showing fountain locations in Metro DC; logo of the Los Angeles-based WeTap; image from the open-source TapMap, showing fountain location in Vancouver.
Clockwise from top left: Guide from the U.K.-based nonprofit #OneLess, dedicated to eliminating the use of single-use plastic water bottles; map created by Open Data DC, showing fountain locations in Metro DC; logo of the Los Angeles-based WeTapTapMap, an app showing fountain locations in Vancouver.

In Philadelphia, Drink Philly Tap, founded in 2016, has launched a neighborhood-based “water ambassador” program, partnered with local artists to create informational murals, and staged pop-up “Water Bars” in the courtyard of City Hall. In London, the organization #OneLess, also started in 2016, is aiming “to spearhead a change in the way Londoners drink water — from single-use plastic water bottles, to refilling and reusing.” Its early efforts include installation of more than two dozen “modern-day drinking fountains” — which feature bottle fillers that take advantage of the widespread use of personal bottles — and publication of a downloadable guide for Londoners who want to put a new fountain in their neighborhood; the mantra is “refill not landfill.” 39  These are just a few of the urban initiatives that seek to encourage residents to use — and to trust — the public supply of water. 40

In some cities water campaigns are being reinforced by collection and translation of public data to offer information about the locations of drinking fountains. The website of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission features a searchable map of fountains in schools and parks. Open Data DC has mapped an extensive network of “water bottle refilling” stations in Washington and suburban Maryland and Virginia. As part of its Cool It! NYC program, New York has produced an interactive map of public drinking fountains (though without the Zagat-style ratings). More than a decade ago, Vancouver introduced the TapMap app to allow residents to locate the nearest fountain. In London, #OneLess has mapped its far-flung bottle-refilling network, from Ealing to Bexley; like many contemporary fountains, some feature digital displays showing how many disposable water bottles have been saved. 41

A contemporary fountain, incorporating a bottle-filling station as well as traditional bubblers.
A contemporary fountain, incorporating a bottle-filling station as well as traditional bubblers. [Oregon Convention Center via Wikimedia under License CC 2.0]

Environmental agendas are central to the rising interest in public water; so too is the potential for drinking fountains to be works of civic art. “The strong legacy of understanding the art of the commons, and the drinking fountain’s central role in them,” writes anthropologist Makelé Cullen, “is returning — triumphantly, colorfully and sustainably.” Cullen was particularly impressed with a competition sponsored a few years ago by Architects Journal, for which notable British architects, including Zaha Hadid, Hopkins Architects, and Studio Weave, proposed a range of fountain designs for sites in London. 42 Around the same time, the design collective Pilot Projects proposed that New York City sponsor a “100 Fountains Projects”: a global competition that would cultivate a culture of water consumption and reduce the use of plastic bottles, and at the same time “involve the public in a functional art extravaganza” and “be an international sensation inspiring cities around the world.” Alas, the project has yet to materialize — largely, it seems, because the Department of Parks and Recreation was reluctant to take on more maintenance. 43

Environmental agendas are central to the rising interest in public water; so too is the potential for drinking fountains to be works of civic art.

A few years earlier, a fountain-art project in Minneapolis met with similar challenges. In 2008 the city council approved an ambitious plan to sponsor a competition for the design of ten new fountains, all by Minnesota artists. The initiative was inspired by a local arts nonprofit, Invigorate the Common Well; it enjoyed the backing of then-mayor R.T. Rybeck and the city’s art community. Ultimately, however, detractors criticized the project as unnecessarily extravagant (each fountain was budgeted at $50,000), and only four artist-designed fountains were constructed. One member of the city council, Cam Gordon, saw the objections in political terms. The project, he argued, was animated by the conviction that water should be “a commons, not a commodity. … That drinking water should be freely available to the public, rather than being a private good, bottled in plastic by a corporation and sold for profit. I believe that’s why conservative commentators have been so critical of this initiative.” 44

Ultimately, it’s unsurprising that the ambitious projects in New York and Minneapolis encountered obstacles. Drinking fountains are seemingly modest, even innocuous urban amenities that nonetheless require the coordination — and, ideally, the approbation — of myriad administrative stakeholders, from parks departments to public art commissions, from water and sewer to landscape maintenance to homeless services. 45 Whether made from Aberdeen granite or stainless steel, whether ensconced in a leafy urban park or tucked into a nook in the local library, the drinking fountain constitutes a nexus of civic infrastructures and economies and ecosystems. And as media scholar Joanna Zylinska has argued, water infrastructures are particularly potent means of thinking through politics. “At a time when lofty yet disembodied notions of democracy and freedom are running thin,” she writes, “we need to work on developing more grounded and more fluid modes of political thinking and action, modes that take our relations with the environment seriously.… Perceiving water as the elemental medium, before it is turned into a resource, an industrial product, or a background to modern economies, needs to be the first step on this journey.” 46 Grounded, embodied, and anything but lofty, the drinking fountain reveals much about the charged politics of public spaces, and about the public things that, again to quote Bonnie Honig, “furnish the world of democratic life.”

Author's Note

I’m grateful to my friends Lize Mogel and Angelyn Chandler for our many discussions about water infrastructures, often had while hiking around water infrastructures.

  1. See Lucy Sante, Reservoir: Nature, Culture, Infrastructure, Places Journal, November 2020, a four-part series which was recently expanded into the book Nineteen Reservoirs: On Their Creation and the Promise of Water for New York City (New York: The Experiment, 2022).
  2. Lize Mogel, Walking the Watershed, The Project. In addition to organizing workshops and tours, Mogel has collaborated with sound engineer Brett Barry and composer Suzanne Thorpe to create a watershed podcast tour; see “A Seat at the Table,” Views from the Watershed. Mogel’s work builds on Diane Galusha’s 1999 Liquid Assets: A History of New York City’s Water System; complements Sante’s Nineteen Reservoirs; and resonates with the parallel art practices of Nancy Nowacek and Mary Mattingly. During the tour, we visited the Catskills Watershed Corporations Headquarters in Arkville, where employees of the CWC and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection work together: a remarkable example of ongoing inter-agency collaboration that works to resolve potentially contentious issues.
  3. Chris Malloy, “Millions of Americans Lack Access to Running Water. An Ancient Method of Capturing Rainwater Could Help Solve This,” The Counter (July 12, 2020); “Tribal Drinking Water Program Improvement,” CDC.
  4. 4. Some urbanites have already produced guides. See Ben Yakas, “Your Guide to the Best Drinking Fountains in Manhattan,” Gothamist, September 4, 2012. See Adrian Sas, Source to Spout: The Water Fountain Project, Riverside Park, June–November 2021.
  5. See Eran Kozer, Ehud Rinott, Guy Kozer, Adina Bar-Haim, Patricia Benveniste-Levkovitz, Hodaya Klainer, Sivan Perl, and Ilan Youngster, “Presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA on Playground Surfaces and Water Fountains,” Epidemiology & Infection (March 8, 2021) doi:10.1017/S0950268821000546; Wasan Kumar, Anisha Patel, and Christina Hecht, “Turn on the Tap! School Drinking Water Access as COVID Persists,” National Drinking Water Alliance (Feb 8, 2022). The response to public demands for resumed service has often been complicated; for example, health officials in Washington State explained (via social media) that fountains “that can’t be regularly cleaned and disinfected” must remain closed, and that when turned back on, they must be flushed before use, and users should avoid contact with the spout and wash their hands after use.”
  6. See, for example, the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homeless’ Water for All Report (March 2021) []: “[U]nhoused San Franciscans are in desperate need of clean water, and there aren’t enough places to get it. This is a problem that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, as there has long been a shortage of restrooms, showers, and sources of potable water accessible to unhoused people. The pandemic has intensified the situation, taking us from a severe human rights crisis into a deadly one.” Recent heat waves, forest fires, and potable water crises have further reinforced the critical value of public drinking water in preparing both human and animal populations for more extreme weather and related environmental crises. See Claire Parker, “How ‘Heat Officers’ Plan to Help Cities Survive Ever-Hotter Summers,” Washington Post (August 28, 2022). See also Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, Fit Nation: The Gains and Pains of America’s Exercise Obsession (University of Chicago Press, 2022).
  7. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 2015); “Public Goods, Common Goods and Global Common Goods: A Brief Explanation,” Unesco; Julian Reiss, “Public Goods,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 21, 2021). Both public and common goods are “non-exclusive,” in that that are no fees or other restrictions preventing anyone from using it, but common goods, unlike public goods, are “rivalrous,” in that one person’s consumption of a good can diminish others’ ability to consume it.
  8. Lucy Sante, “An Account of Human Costs,” in Reservoir: Nature, Culture, Infrastructure, Places Journal, November 2020;
  9. Bonnie Honig, Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair (Fordham University Press, 2017): 4–5. See also Langdon Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” Daedalus, Winter 1980.
  10. Josselyn Ivanov, “Drinking Fountains: The Past and Future of Free Public Water in the United States,” Master’s Thesis, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015: 11–12. I am also indebted to architectural historian Matthew Gin, and his ideas about “intersectional objects” in which various political. economic, social, moral, and ethical concerns converge. In his “Architecture in the Age of Reform” class at University of North Carolina, Gin teaches a lesson on Temperance Fountains, which we discussed on Twitter and through email on September 6, 2022.
  11. See Ivanov; also Andreas N. Angelakis, Larry W. Mays, Demetris Koutsoyiannis, and Nikos Mamassis, Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia (International Water Association Publishing, 2012); Dora P. Crouch, Water Management in Ancient Greek Cities (Oxford University Press, 1993); Betsey A. Robinson, “Fountains as Reservoirs of Myth and Memory,” in Greta Hawes, ed., Myths on the Map: The Storied Landscapes of Ancient Greece (Oxford University Press, 2017): 178–182.
  12. Tessa Farmer, Mel Throckmorton, and Fazlah Rahaman, “The Sabils of Cairo: Small Scale Urban Adaptations to Water Stress,” The Journal of Sustainability Education (March 2, 2020). See also Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, eds., Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture (Yale University Press, 2009); and Alex Schultz, “Waiting at the Taps: Stereography and Water Infrastructure in Cairo,” Platform (October 31, 2022).
  13. James Salzman, “Thirst: A Short History of Drinking Water,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 17 (2006): 12. See also Harry B. Evans, Water Distribution in Ancient Rome: The Evidence of Frontinus (University of Michigan Press, 1997); James Salzman, Drinking Water: A History (Overlook Duckworth, 2017).
  14. Salzman: 15.
  15. Anne Hardy, “Parish Pump to Private Pipes: London’s Water Supply in the Nineteenth Century,” Medical History, 1991.
  16. Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, Book 1, Chapter 3. See also “The Great Stink,” on the Thames in the summer of 1858, from the podcast series In Our Time, with host Melvyn Bragg and guests Rosemary Ashton, Stephen Halliday, and Paul Dobraszczyk.
  17. Charles Pierre Melly, “A Paper on Drinking Fountains” (National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, 1858). See also Philip Davies, Troughs & Drinking Fountains: Fountains of Life (London: Chatto & Windus, 1989); Emma M. Jones, Parched City (Zero Books, 2013), Apple Books, 150–1; Howard Malchow, “Free Water: The Public Drinking Fountain Movement and Victorian London,” London Journal 4:2 (1978): 181–203;
  18. Melly: “A Paper on Drinking Fountains.”
  19. Paul Dobraszcyk, “Ornament and Purity: Macfarlane’s Drinking Fountains,” Victorian Review 44:1 (Spring 2018): 17;
  20. Quoted in Gerard T. Koeppel, Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 27.
  21. Koeppel: 28.
  22. Quoted in Koeppel: 73.
  23. Quoted in Koeppel: 115, 139, 281.
  24. “Drinking Fountains,” New York Times (May 6, 1859): 4.
  25. “A Public Drinking Fountain in the Park,” New York Times (June 11, 1859): 5.
  26. “Weeding Out Bad Sculpture, New York Times (March 13, 1894): 4.
  27. Howard Malchow, “Free Water”: 200.
  28. J. H. Dunlap, “The Sanitary Drinking Fountain,” Journal (American Water Works Association) 4:1 (March 1917): 65–69. See also Ivanov: 29–30. In his article, Dunlap dates the banning of the communal cup in Kansas to 1904; the Kansas Historical Society dates it to 1904.
  29. R. Allan Freeze and Jay H. Lehr, The Fluoride Wars: How a Modest Public Health Measure Became America’s Longest-Running Political Melodrama (Wiley, 2009); Donald R. McNeil, “America’s Longest War: The Fight Over Fluoridation, 1950–,” The Wilson Quarterly 9:3 (1985): 140–53; Gretchen Ann Reilly, “’This Poisoning of Our Drinking Water’: The American Fluoridation Controversy in Historical Context, 1950–90,” Dissertation, George Washington University (2001).
  30. Ivanov: 28.
  31. Rosa Parks with Jim Haskins, Rosa Parks: My Story (New York: Penguin, 1992), 46. For a discussion of segregated fountains and their depiction by Black and White photographers, see Elizabeth Abel, “Bathrooms Doors and Drinking Fountains: Jim Crow’s Racial Symbolic,” Critical Inquiry 25:3 (1999): 435–81.
  32. Peter Gleick, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water (Island Press, 2010): 3.
  33. Bruce G. Posner, “Once Is Not Enough,” Inc., October 1, 1986.
  34. In these years, “schools and other public facilities began making lucrative deals with soda companies, leading to a growing presence of vending machines and a perverse incentive to minimize drinking water access.” Ivanov, 35. See also Andrew Szasz, Shopping Our Way to Safety (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), especially his discussion of “personal commodity bubbles.”
  35. Martha Kaplan, “Lonely Drinking Fountains and Comforting Coolers: Paradoxes of Water Value and Ironies of Water Use,” Cultural Anthropology 26:4 (2011): 514–41;
  36. Gleick: 4.
  37. Gleick: 47.
  38. WeTap, About. “City Council Panel Eyes Plan To Bring Back Public Water Fountains,” KCAL News, October 9, 2013. “Plans to Install, Refurbish 200 Hydration Stations in Los Angeles Announced at 5th Annual Tap Water Day LA,” June 13, 2019, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. See also Frances Anderton, A Campaign to Revive Public Water Fountains Aims to Reduce Use of Bottled Water,” KCRW, Design and Architecture, November 12, 2013.
  39. “8 CA Cities Pledge Not to Use Public Funds for Bottled Water,” SF Environment (October 30, 2008); Jennifer 8. Lee, “City Council Shuns Bottles in Favor of Water from Tap,” New York Times (June 17, 2008); Water Quality Report, DC Water, 2022; see Drink Philly Tap; #OneLess, About.
  40. See Rapichan Phurisamban and Peter Gleick, “Drinking Fountains and Public Health: Improving National Water Infrastructure to Rebuilt Trust and Ensure Access,” Pacific Institute (February 17).
  41. See SF Public Utilities Commission; Tap It Water Locations, DC Open Data; Cool It! NYC; TapMap, Metro Vancouver. Though useful, many of these mapping efforts are nonetheless imperfect and quickly outdated. In many cities it’s difficult even to find a comprehensive data set of existing fountains — perhaps in part because their functionality is so variable.
  42. Makalé Cullen, “Shaping Water,” Medium, January 2015. See Tom Ravenscroft, “Hadid, Hopkins, Parry, Adam, AHMM or Studio Weave? Vote for your favorite AJ Kiosk,” Architects Journal, February 19, 2014.
  43. 100 Fountains, Pilot Projects. For a discussion of the process, and the city’s ultimate refusal of the project, see Ivanov, 118–120, and Tim Schuler, “Public Spaces Has a Drinking Problem,” Landscape Architecture Magazine, November 10, 2015. See also Kendra Pierre-Louis, “We Don’t trust Drinking Fountains Anymore, and That’s Bad for Our Health,” Washington Post (July 8, 2015). See also Agency-Agency and Chris Woebken Studio, New Public Hydrant, which draws on global examples to fashion the fire hydrant as a source of drinking water; the 2018 project was featured in Tei Carpenter and Christopher Woebken, “The New Public Water,” Urban Omnibus (January 9, 2019); the project is also featured in the New York, New Publics exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art this month.
  44. Quoted in Ivanov, 49. See also Josselyn Ivanov, “Minneapolis Artist-Design Drinking Fountains,” Drinking Fountains Blog, March 2015. See also Invigorate the Common Well.
  45. See Nick Kushner, “Quenching Community Thirst: Planning for More Access to Drinking Water in Public Places,” American Planning Association (November 2013).
  46. Joanna Zylinska, “Hydromedia: From Water Literacy to the Ethics of Saturation,” in Melody Jue and Rafico Ruiz, eds., Saturation: An Elemental Politics (Duke University Press, 2021): 65. As someone who’s studied and worked with public libraries for the past 25 years, I wonder how the drinking fountain might inspire us to think about the library and its provisions as public things: What might flows of data have in common with streams of drinking water? How might we imagine parallels between their “pipes” and “spigots,” their infrastructures and interfaces? How might knowing more about those infrastructural systems — their reservoirs and repositories, codes and conduits — prepare us to better understand how they can, and could, operate? What happens when the contents of those PVC or fiber optic pipes are “bottled” or “bundled?” What if we likened data, or knowledge, not to a fossil fuel that needs to be exploitatively “extracted,” but to a sustaining resource that, if channeled, metered, filtered, and protected, can nourish, rather than decimate, an entire ecology? In other words, what if both data and water were regarded as a public good?
Shannon Mattern, “Fountain Society,” Places Journal, February 2023. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. <>

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