Local Sources: WCTU Drinking Fountains

Fresh Drinking Water for Human and Beast

At the first meeting of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in Cleveland, Ohio, November 18-20, 1874, ideas flowed like water. Among the points on the First Plan of Work was this item:

“We urge our unions everywhere to signalize the coming hundredth birthday [1876] of America  by erecting in every village and town and city, fountains of water, inscribed with such mottoes as shall show what sort of drink the women of America believe in, and as shall be a sermon in their persuasiveness to our fathers, brothers, and sons.”

Long after the centenary of the US had passed—and well into the 20th century-- the women of the WCTU continued their campaign to provide free, accessible drinking water to thirsty townspeople—and often to their horses and dogs. With the goal of supplying an alternative to the alcoholic beverages offered in saloons, WCTU members also fulfilled another of their missions: the welfare of animals, especially the horses which were still the means of transport for people and goods. Many fountains had spouts for humans, plus troughs at two lower levels for horses and dogs.

As historian Carol Mattingly has written, “More significant than the availability of clean water however, may be the fountains’ public tribute to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and its members….They symbolized the power and importance of the WCTU,” since they were placed in very public areas such as parks, squares, and major intersections. Local newspapers often described the dedication ceremonies. The fountains also demonstrated the WCTU’s civic influence, even before women could vote, since the fountain installations (paid for by the WCTU) required the cooperation of the local governments which supplied the water.

As you can see from the images in this exhibit, the WCTU fountains ranged in size and form; some were classical in style, some more rustic; some had receptacles for ice storage to keep drinking water cold; some had faucets while others sprayed jets of water.  Despite the many stylistic differences, the fountains could almost always be identified as WCTU structures by the inscriptions: the letters “WCTU” or the full title “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,” and an inscribed motto or Bible verse; many also included the town name, the name of the specific WCTU union that funded the fountains, or the name of a local or national WCTU leader.

How many WCTU drinking fountains were installed? Did the WCTU get close to putting a fountain in every town and city? It’s hard to say, since many fountains have either disappeared or their history and origin have been forgotten. We know that WCTUs were installing fountains as late as 1939. We have documented over 90 fountains in this exhibit—and we know there are many more, past and present, still to be identified from old photographs and newspaper articles, or by sharp-eyed local historians who are curious about unusual monuments in their towns.

Over the years, the public nature of the WCTU fountains was part of the reason for their disappearance—they were blocking traffic on newly widened streets, or were in the way of redevelopment, or their use as horse troughs made them obsolete. In some cases, fountains were moved to obscure corners of parks; some were vandalized or damaged beyond repair.  However, many fountains have been restored and still exist as local historical monuments, though fewer still function as water sources for thirsty humans and dogs.

Viewing and searching this exhibit

This exhibit includes images and details about existing fountains as well as fountains that have been removed. Fountains are organized alphabetically by state (or country) and town/city name. 

Location(s) of WCTU fountains are marked in red on the page for each state. [Not all maps have been marked yet]

Unless otherwise noted, images were contributed by WCTU members. See the Notes and Bibliography page for additional citation and source information.

Is--or was--there a temperance fountain near you? Check the list to find out! As more fountains are discovered, they will be added to the exhibit. You can help! See the About page for our contact information.