Today, access to free and clean drinking water is something we consider a right of all Americans, but in the 1800s, that access was extremely limited, which is why so many U.S. citizens took to drinking beer instead. Beer, which is 99% water – though most would agree it tastes better – also contains alcohol, and it’s alcohol that ensures a cold brew doesn’t have any nasty bacteria floating around in it. This meant people could rehydrate without fear of getting sick. But alcohol not only protects a beer from bacteria, it also has a tendency to get people drunk, and that’s something the Temperance Movement was fervently against. The solution? Build public water fountains.
1859 saw the debut of the first public water fountain in the park in front of New York’s City Hall, and many cities began to follow suit shortly thereafter. But these fountains were not in what many people in the Temperance Movement felt were the hotbeds of inebriation, so they set out to erect fountains of their own. In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement announced a call to action, imploring their supporters to erect free, clean drinking fountains in the most at-risk areas. The rationale was simple, if there was clean, free water available, those looking to quench their thirst wouldn’t enter bars. Fountains spread across the U.S.
While many people took heed of the movement’s instructions, none was more fervent in his devotion to the cause than Henry Cogswell. Mr. Cogswell was a believer in the idea that alcohol was a scourge on humanity, and since he himself was a man of means – having made over two million dollars as a successful dentist and investor – he took it upon himself to erect fifty Temperance Fountains across the country from 1878 to 1890. He was even so bold as to include a statue of himself at the top of many of them.
The monuments were all similar in theme and appearance: they each contained a fountain in the middle surrounded by four columns, covered with a stone roof emblazoned with the words Hope, Faith, Charity and Temperance on each of the sides. Suffice it to say they weren’t well received by many people who possess taste. Often these monuments, which were gifted to the cities in which they resided, were almost immediately labeled monstrosities and offenses to public art. One of Cogswell’s monuments in San Francisco was actually torn down in the middle of the night by a mob of art lovers who just couldn’t take the sight of the fountain anymore as they passed it day in and day out at its location on the corner of California and Market Street.
This action, and many others like it — including the destruction of a fountain in Washington Square Park that was torn down, buried and then covered in cement — is one of the main catalysts behind the creation of fine arts commissions across the country. These commissions became the judge and jury of what would and would not be accepted and erected in public spaces in the future.
But some of Cogswell’s fountains remain, most notably in New York and Washington, D.C. The fountain in New York can still be found in its original home inside Tompkins Square Park, where it sits in the center of a walking path, the figure of Hebe, the mythical water carrier, perched atop the structure’s stone roof. In D.C. the monument has been labeled the ugliest in the entire city, yet is still exists as well, albeit moved from its original location near the area that used to be known as “Hookers Division” (now known as the Federal Triangle); it now sits on the corner of Seventh Street and Indiana Avenue.
While these Temperance Fountains didn’t result in people turning from beer to water, they did ultimately help encourage the proliferation of free access to water across the country, as well as serve as the catalyst for better scrutiny before accepting public art.