Union Square Drinking Fountain

A female personification of Charity—a woman with two children holding a water pitcher—is not just a statue . . . it used to be a drinking fountain. One of the oldest in the NYC park system, the Union Square Drinking Fountain is also called James Fountain, reflecting the name of its donor, philanthropist Daniel Willis James.

Until the mid-19th century, New York City didn’t have access to good drinking water—making alcohol the often healthier drinking choice. This all changed with the completion of the Croton Reservoir aqueduct in 1842, which brought wonderfully fresh drinking water to the city. This was the cause of great celebrations and inspired the creation of many fountains throughout the city. 

Not merely an ornament, James Fountain had the practical use of providing drinking water. Water came out of the four lions’ mouths serving as water spouts. Metal cups were chained to the statue so that anyone could stop by the fountain and help himself to a drink. Since sharing cups with strangers didn’t seem like a good public health strategy, the cups were eventually removed.

Since alcohol consumption was a huge problem in 19th-century America, the Temperance movement—which blamed all the societal evils on drinking—came up with the brilliant idea that alcoholic beverages should simply be replaced with water. Fountains like this one were erected with the purpose of satisfying thirst and replacing visits to local bars.

The Temperance movement started in the 19th century and eventually led to the Prohibition—the law banning alcohol from 1920 to 1933. But the experiment utterly failed to stop people from drinking. And speaking of social evils, the Prohibition directly led to the flourishing of organized crime in the Roaring 20s.

Even though NYC today has no shortage of drinking establishments and one can buy bottled water virtually anywhere, the beautiful Temperance Fountain reminds one of the times when fresh water was not so easily available. Butterflies, dragonflies, salamanders, and birds on the statue pedestal still flock to the streams of life-giving water that used to come out of the bronze lions’ heads.  

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