Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains

Temperancefountaintompkinssquare2Just as abortion and the death penalty are hot-button issues today, temperance divided Americans in the 19th century.

The millions of members of the American Temperance Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and other groups believed that banning alcohol could eliminate major social problems like poverty and crime.

These organizations were pretty powerful. But it was hard to persuade people to give up booze when alcoholic beverages were often safer to drink than water.

That’s where the temperance fountain comes in.

“The premise behind the fountains was that the availability of cool drinking water would make alcohol less tempting,” wrote Therese Loeb Kreuzer in a 2012 article in The Villager.

Temperancefountaintomkinssquare3“In the 19th century, temperance fountains could be found in cities and towns from coast to coast. Now few of them remain.”

Two still stand in Manhattan. One is in Tompkins Square Park, a strange place for a temperance fountain considering that the area was packed with beer-loving Germans at the time.

Donated by a wealthy temperance crusader who had it cast in 1888, it features a bronze figure of the Greek Goddess Hebe, cupbearer to the Gods, on top of a pedestal supported by four columns.

Blocks away on the west side of Union Square is New York’s second remaining temperance fountain. Paid for by another rich temperance convert and dating to 1881, it’s a figure of Charity that really works the innocent mother and children angle.

Temperancefountainunionsquare“Bronze dragonflies and butterflies frolic above the lions,” wrote Kreuzer in The Villager. “Then comes a richly sculpted band of acanthus leaves and birds. The ensemble is topped by a figure of a mother dressed like the Virgin Mary in a Renaissance painting. She holds a child in her right arm, while dispensing water from a jug to another child who looks at her adoringly.”

Both statues are the legacies of the movement that gave us Prohibition—and speakeasies—in the 1920s.

[Top two photos: Wikipedia]

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7 Responses to “Manhattan’s 19th century temperance fountains”

  1. BabyDave Says:

    Thank you. Lived here all my life and didn’t know.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I didn’t either, and I’d passed both fountains about a million times over the years.

  3. Dave Says:

    Portland, onetime home-away-from-logging-camp to thousands of lumbermen, is covered with similar fountains, called “bubblers,” put there for the same reason.

  4. Linkage: Folk Art Museum Not MoMA’s First Historic Demolition – Says:

    […] with picnic benches [DNA] · Adorable sinkhole minimally disrupts West Village [NYT] · Prohibition wasn’t great, but it led to some nice fountains [ENY] · LICH supporters accuse SUNY of trying to woo developers [BDE] · As always, your […]

  5. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I knew what the fountain was and meant years ago. When I was kid and playing at the fountain an old woman told me and a group of other kids playing nearby the story of our future wasted drunkenness, if we don’t watch out. Was a fascinating story back then and a few times walking wrecked, wasted and stoned in the park I always thought about that fountain and it made me feel bad. Oh well, life goes on and here we are 😉

  6. Bob_in_MA Says:

    There’s a very neat one in DC:,_DC%29

  7. Sipping cool water from a city fountain in 1900 | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] up in New York City parks in the 1880s, often paid for by wealthy private citizens and supported by temperance groups, reports this Huffington Post […]

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