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In Support of the Neglected Drinking Fountain

The Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association built the first public drinking fountain in London in 1859, as an answer to some of the pressing problems of their times. Drinking fountains are also part of the answer to some of our own problems.

In 19th Century London, private water companies supplied inadequate, poor quality water to the city, as evidenced by the rampant cholera, making beer a safer alternative. The government wasn’t doing much about it, so the private Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association stepped in. Not only were drinking fountains healthier than the contaminated water, but they were seen as a morally necessary alternative to demon liquor.

The first drinking fountain installed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, St Sepulchres Church, Snow Hill, London 1859. Wikimedia

They were a great success. According to Wikipedia, “Dickens’s Dictionary of London said in 1879, under “Drinking Fountains”: “Until the last few years London was ill-provided with public drinking fountains and cattle troughs. This matter is now well looked after by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, which has erected and is now maintaining nearly 800 fountains and troughs, at which an enormous quantity of water is consumed daily. It is estimated that 300,000 people take advantage of the fountains on a summer’s day, and a single trough has supplied the wants of 1,800 horses in one period of 24 hours.”

In the 20th Century, drinking fountains became common in the US as well, as their designs were refined for health and convenience, and they became ubiquitous in public spaces.

So what happened? Where have all the drinking fountains gone?

Drinking fountains continued to be a standard amenity in new buildings through the 1980’s, but then something unprecedented happened: bottled water. With the advent of bottled water came public fears over the quality of tap water, and by extension drinking fountains.

There is a widespread fear that public fountains are unsanitary, full of bacteria and germs. An August 28th article in the Toronto Star reports dramatic and disgusting results of the testing of twenty drinking fountains and coolers in Toronto.

But near the bottom of the piece they note, “The Star’s results should not discourage people from drinking at water fountains, says one of Canada’s top environmental microbiologists. They should encourage the agencies responsible for these units to give them a good scrubbing, making sure to avoid cross-contamination.” If you look beyond the scary descriptions, which few people will, one take-home message could be: Not all bacteria is bad for you. Clean the fountain regularly, and don’t put your mouth on the spigot.

Sounds like common sense to me.

There are also a number of misconceptions about the legality of providing free water in institutions such as public schools. Some businesses and institutions have exclusive contracts to sell only one brand of beverage, and believe that providing free water would violate that agreement (it doesn’t).

Where there are no regulations requiring the inclusion of drinking fountains in new buildings, they are increasingly left out or downplayed. Why bother, when there is a bottled water vending machine right there.


What are the current pressing problems that drinking fountains could answer?

Issue number one is bottled water. There are several organizations and campaigns working to reduce bottled water use because of concerns for the quality of the water being sold, the toxic pollution resulting from the production of plastic bottles, the environmental impact of discarded empty plastic water bottles, and the unnecessary cost of purchasing something that is readily available for free.

There are also the health concerns raised by the consumption, especially by children, of sweet bottled drinks. Similar to our 19th Century predecessors, if people are worried about the quality of tap water and bottled water, the next step might not be beer, but it might be Coke.

The anti-bottled water people have succeeded in making nearly everyone aware that bottled water is a problem, and the numbers of people willing to carry a refillable bottle with them are growing steadily. The big gaping hole in the movement away from bottled water is not so much awareness, but rather that there is nowhere to get a drink or refill your bottle. It seems to me that water fountains should be a standard part of any anti-bottled water action plan.

As a resident of New York City this is glaringly obvious. It can take serious effort to find a tap amid the expanse of concrete and glass, which is particularly frustrating since NYC tap water is fantastic. During the heat of this summer, there was a project to provide temporary, mobile drinking fountains. Why not install more, and make them permanent? (Here is a similar project in Vancouver)

New York City's Water-On-the-Go temporary drinking fountain project, summer 2010. Source: Brownstoner

To provide safe, free drinking water in public places is not beyond our ability, and is an investment that could save money in the long run.

Looking into this issue, I expected to find many local or national groups promoting drinking fountains, but not so. England again appears to be the leader in this. A number of UK cities (Soho, London, London, Bristol)  have active pro-fountain movements, as well as a few scattered through Australia and elsewhere (Seattle, San Francisco), but they are the exception.

In the U.S., there are leading voices, such as Elizabeth Royte, who point out the logic and safety of drinking fountains. In the comments, please share information about other drinking fountain programs and campaigns that local people can support.

And hurry, please. I’m getting thirsty!

More Info:

Drinking Water Fountains Make a Splash in NYC

New York City Dips Baby Toe in Water Fountains

Elizabeth Royte Blog – Notes on Water, Waste, Whatever

Follow Columbia Water Center on Facebook and Twitter

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Rick MacNeal
13 years ago

Seeing the photo of the temporary water fountain set up reminded me of a project we were contracted to produce for a large outdoor gathering of international visitors to an event in California earlier this summer.

Ours (we made four units which were moved daily to the appropriate venue)were like counter-tops with 4 drinking faucets mounted on wheels. Although the water source was municipal the client required additional filtration to each faucet in the form of carbon block and ultra-violet light.

Originally we were going to buy the units back, but the client liked them so much they kept them for future use.

I can send photos if you’re interested.

13 years ago

[…] Dual Flush Toilets:  This week I hear that the New York City Council has voted to allow (or possibly require) buildings in the city to install dual-flush toilets (low water volume option and power flush option) for the first time.  The bill does mandate that showerheads, urinals and sink faucets meet federal standards for performance and water efficiency.  And in a related bill,  says Gothamist, “Most controversially, the council required new construction to install water fountains with a separate spout with 10 inches of space below to allow users to fill a water bottle.”  YAY! […]

Diana Altman
Diana Altman
12 years ago

Does anyone know what happened to the drinking fountains that used to be on the sidewalks of New York? Were they pulled out and destroyed? Are there any lists of the places where they used to be. Thanks for your help. Diana

Evelyn Wendel
10 years ago works to improve drinking fountain awareness access and use in Los Angeles and beyond…great work being done here by the city and the water agency and our group…