Fountain Drinks

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 2012, a design group in New York city called Pilot Projects rolled out a strip of red carpet in Union Square, a public park in the middle of Manhattan. They hired a flautist and a waiter in a tuxedo who wore white gloves and had a small towel draped over his forearm, and one-by-one they serve people drinks.

Katie Mingle:
Drinks of water from the public drinking fountain.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
This design group, Pilot Projects held this event to promote their plan to install 100 new drinking fountains in New York City, but not just run-of-the-mill drinking fountains.

Scott Francisco:
We’re talking about drinking fountains, that it would be designed by artists and designers and architects.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Scott Francisco from Pilot Projects.

Scott Francisco:
We really want the drinking fountain to be something that people love to use and share with each other and that there’s a sense of pride in the fountains too.

Roman Mars:
Pilot Projects was hoping to put some prestige back on the drinking fountain. Make it cool again. I know what you’re thinking, drinking fountains have never been cool. No one has ever been like, “Yo, see you at the drinking fountain later.”

Katie Mingle:
But you’re wrong. There was a time when everyone was like, “Yo, see you at the drinking fountain later.”

Philip Davies:
On the 21st of April 1859, the streets of London were thronged with crowds of people who came to witness the opening of the first free fresh drinking fountain.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Philip Davies. He wrote a book about historic drinking fountains in London, and he’s talking about the day that the public drinking fountain was the coolest thing in town. The scene was recorded in ‘The London Illustrated News’, so we actually have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

Philip Davies:
Women turned out in their best finery.

Katie Mingle:
The men had their top hats on.

Philip Davies:
Children were clambering over the railings.

Katie Mingle:
Everyone was so pumped. They were like, “Water is the best!”

Philip Davies:
People, I think, couldn’t believe that they were blessed with something that was so important to them.

Roman Mars:
And if you look at the picture in ‘The London Illustrated News’, you can see above the fountain engraved in the stonewall the words, “The first drinking fountain.”

Katie Mingle:
It probably wasn’t the first drinking fountain in the history of the world, but it was the first one in London.

Roman Mars:
This fountain was used by thousands of people a day. And to understand its mass appeal, you have to understand some things about London before this fountain was installed.

Philip Davies:
Well, city life in the 19th century – in London in particular – was an absolute nightmare for the poorer classes.

Katie Mingle:
And a big part of that nightmare was the drinking water. Most people did not have access to water in their homes. Instead, many got water from the nasty cesspool known as the River Thames.

Philip Davies:
The Thames was basically a great sewer.

Roman Mars:
It was full of feces and chemicals. It was not uncommon to see dead animals floating down the river. The Thames was so nasty that London has the distinction of having a period in their history called…

Philip Davies:
The Great Stink. When the smell from the Thames was so bad that they had to evacuate the House of Commons in Westminster by the river.

Katie Mingle:
So some people in London got their water directly from the stinky Thames and other people got it from wells that were also dirty and contaminated with disease.

Roman Mars:
Cholera was rampant. Outbreaks of the disease in 1847 and 1854 killed 58,000 people in London, and the accepted theory at the time was diseases including cholera, were spread through bad smelling air.

Katie Mingle:
But some people were skeptical of this including a scientist named John Snow. John Snow thought that disease might be spread through water

Roman Mars:
And everyone was all like, “You know nothing, John Snow.”

Katie Mingle:
And he was like, “Actually, I know that the water is killing you and I’m going to prove it.”

Peter Gleick:
He went door to door and said, “Are you sick or are members of your family is sick?” And he actually marked down on a map everyone who was sick.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Peter Gleick, an expert on water-related issues at the Pacific Institute.

Peter Gleick:
He identified, in the center of this outbreak, a particular water well. He went, he removed the pump handle so that nobody could pump water from that water well and the cholera epidemic in this neighborhood ended.

Roman Mars:
No one had ever really mapped disease patterns like this before, which is why John Snow is known as the Father of Modern Epidemiology. John Snow made the discovery that cholera was linked to water in 1854.

Katie Mingle:
Shortly after that, a group was formed called the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. They later changed their name to Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association because it was just catchier, you know? And providing clean water for animals also became a central tenet of their mission.

Roman Mars:
They built drinking fountains all over London, including the first one in 1859.

Philip Davies:
Very soon afterwards, within five or six years, over 80 fountains – similar fountains – were erected across London.

Katie Mingle:
By 1879, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain And Cattle Trough Association had built almost 800 drinking fountains in London. The association was made up of wealthy, mostly Christian philanthropists, and they had a couple different agendas in building these fountains.

Roman Mars:
One was clean, safe drinking water for poor people, and the other was temperance.

Katie Mingle:
The Temperance Movement, a social movement that opposed the consumption of alcohol was an early supporter of this new beverage called water. See, there was a terrible epidemic of alcoholism in London at the time, but not just in London, in a lot of other places too, including the United States where the Temperance Movement was also taking hold.

Marta Gutman:
And really the reason that temperance is invented is because alcohol is what people drink.

Katie Mingle:
That’s historian and architect Marta Gutman.

Marta Gutman:
Water is dirty. Water is not understood to be a suitable beverage. Milk is unheard of, except for babies. And coffee and tea are expensive, so that’s it.

Katie Mingle:
Men, women, and even children were drinking alcohol all day long. Alcoholism was destroying families.

Peter Gleick:
In order to push the Temperance Movement, in order to fight against alcohol, part of the argument was there had to be an alternative, and one of the alternatives at this time, once we figured out how to provide safe water was water.

Katie Mingle:
Temperance fountains were built in public parks, at churches, and often right outside the local bar, hoping to snag those few people that weren’t going in because they wanted to get drunk, but just because they were thirsty.

Roman Mars:
The architectural style of these fountains vary greatly depending on who commissioned them, but they weren’t like the drinking fountains you grew up with. They were generally made of stone or granite.

Katie Mingle:
That first fountain in London was fairly simple.

Philip Davies:
But they became quite rapidly much more elaborate and were seen, I suppose, as symbols of philanthropy.

Roman Mars:
Some were ornate Victorian Gothic structures, monuments really.

Philip Davies:
Quite a common, architectural detail here was this lion’s headed spout, the water came out of the mouth of the lion’s head.

Katie Mingle:
The ones built by Christian organizations often included a biblical inscription like …

Philip Davies:
“The fear of the Lord is the fountain of life.”

Roman Mars:
You can still find temperance fountains all over Europe and in the US. There’s one in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. In Oregon, a lumber tycoon/teetotaler named Simon Benson built fountains all over Portland. They came to be known as Benson Bubblers and Portlanders loved them, referred to drinking from them as having a “Benson Highball.” There’s a fountain in Petaluma, California with the inscription, “Total abstinence is the way to handle the alcohol problem.”

Katie Mingle:
Ultimately, drinking fountains didn’t handle our problems with alcohol, but they quickly became part of the public landscape.

Marta Gutman:
What comes out of it is an idea that there should be drinking fountains in cities, that fountains should not be ornamental, that there should water available in public for people to drink.

Peter Gleick:
As building codes were developed, people started to require a certain number of water fountains in, for example, stadiums, sports stadiums, or in music halls. I think that became an important part of our municipal design.

Katie Mingle:
But it took a while to refine certain aspects of the design.

Roman Mars:
For years, drinking fountains were sort of like a public faucet. You’d set your cup under a spigot and turn on the water. And this cup, it was a ‘common cup’ that hung from a chain and was meant to be used by all.

Philip Davies:
And then a little sign that says, “Please replace the cup.”

Katie Mingle:
It was actually a pretty big battle to get rid of the common cup. Public health officials knew it was spreading disease, but people weren’t in the habit of carrying their own cup around.

Roman Mars:
In 1912, the very first federal regulation on our drinking water was passed to abolish the common cup at drinking fountains.

Katie Mingle:
Meanwhile, a drinking fountain was designed that did not require a cup. It was similar to the drinking fountains we use now, the difference being that the water came out in a vertical jet that shot straight up.

Roman Mars:
Which is exactly like a bidet but for your mouth and all of your backwash would just drip straight down onto the spout or people would just put their lips onto the spout. This vertical jet style drinking fountain was called, ironically, a sanitary drinking fountain.

Katie Mingle:
And in 1920, the American Water Works Association issued a sternly worded report that begins, “The war against the common drinking cup has been won. This victory, however, must not be allowed to blind us to the dangers lurking in the sanitary drinking fountain.”

Roman Mars:
The report goes on to detail a study of one of these so-called sanitary drinking fountains.

Katie Mingle:
“Of the 47 people who use the fountain in almost every instance, the lips were placed completely around the metal ball from which the water spurted and one small boy acted as though he were trying to swallow the whole machinery.”

Roman Mars:
And it goes on.

Katie Mingle:
“Of the 47 people, three looked as though they were unmistakably victims of tuberculosis, and three had eruptions on their faces.”

Katie Mingle:
They advised putting cages around the spouts so that we couldn’t wrap our mouths around them and finally, they advise switching to a slanted or arc jet of water.

Roman Mars:
This, along with the guard around the spout, proved to be the design that stuck.

Katie Mingle:
Finally, a drinking fountain we could all get behind, sort of.

Archive Tape:
“And I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”

Katie Mingle:
For a lot of Americans, the public drinking fountain conjures an image that has nothing to do with the slanted jet or the common cup or with temperance. It’s an image of segregation.

Marta Gutman:
The segregated drinking fountain during the Jim Crow era in the South, I mean this is one of the images that haunt us, right?

Katie Mingle:
Sharing water made racist America uncomfortable, whether it was drinking fountains or swimming pools.

Marta Gutman:
There’s this huge anxiety about the contact of black and white bodies.

Roman Mars:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregated public facilities including drinking fountains, although a handful hung on in the South for a few more years.

Katie Mingle:
Even with that darkest period of the drinking fountain’s history over, it’s never really been as beloved as it was when they opened that first one in London in 1859.

Roman Mars:
Recently, public drinking fountains have met their most formidable opponent.

Peter Gleick:
So in the United States, we consume nine or 10 billion gallons a year of expensive bottled water, and it’s growing 5% to 10% a year.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Peter Gleick again of the Pacific Institute. He also wrote a book called ‘Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.’

Peter Gleick:
The consequence of that is billions and billions of plastic bottles that have to be thrown away or recycled.

Katie Mingle:
Another consequence, drinking fountains are starting to disappear from the public landscape.

Peter Gleick:
Despite the fact that many people believe public water is sort of a standard part of any urban design, we have seen movement away from water fountains.

Peter Gleick:
The University of Central Florida, in 2007, opened a brand new football stadium. They had built a stadium with no public water fountains.

Roman Mars:
And on opening day, 45,000 people showed up to watch the UCF Knights play the Texas Longhorns.

Peter Gleick:
It was an incredibly hot day.

Katie Mingle:
Almost 100 degrees, so everyone was thirsty.

Roman Mars:
Bottled water was for sale of course, but it costs $3 and then the bottled water sold out.

Katie Mingle:
18 people were taken to hospitals and 60 more were treated by local campus personnel for heat-related illnesses.

Roman Mars:
At first, the university was unapologetic and then some angry students organized into a group called ‘Knights For Free Water.’ They demanded that drinking fountains be installed in the stadium. “We’re not out for blood, we just want water,” they said. The local press came up with a name for this scandal, you’ll never guess.

Katie Mingle:
Yes, it was Watergate.

Roman Mars:
And finally, the university was forced to concede. They installed 50 drinking fountains in their stadium.

Katie Mingle:
The ‘Knights For Free Water’ probably didn’t know anything about their foremothers and fathers and the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, but it’s because of them and their teetotaling brethren in the United States that we’ve come to expect access to clean, free water in public places.

Roman Mars:
If Watergate proved anything, you know besides Nixon was a liar and a cheat, it’s that drinking fountains still matter and when they’re gone, we notice. Because even though we, as a society, have mostly rejected the idea of temperance and embrace the idea that we love booze forever, sometimes water is still the best.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Marta Gutman, a talk she gave on her book, ‘City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland’ inspired this story.

Roman Mars:
Bonus fact, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain And Cattle Trough Association still exists, but they changed their name again. Now they’re just The Drinking Fountain Association. They still maintain London’s historic fountains and build new ones in developing countries.

Roman Mars:
The design group we mentioned at the beginning of the piece, Pilot Projects, is trying to build 100 new drinking fountains in New York. They’re still trying to make it happen, but they need the city to partner with them.

Scott Francisco:
If you’re really into this, write a note to the mayor’s office and ask for better drinking fountains and mention that ‘100 Fountains Project’ as part of the solution.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, Kurt Kohlstedt, and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, an architecture and interiors firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Roman Mars:
While Katie was working on this piece, we collectively couldn’t get the Tune-Yards song, ‘Water Fountain’, out of our heads. And it just so happens that Hrishi at Song Exploder did an episode about that song, which was one of our absolute favorite episodes so we thought we’d add it here as a little bonus. Enjoy.

Merrill Garbus:
I want my music to be a product of the world that I am growing up in and growing older in. So if this song is going to exist as a Tune-Yards song, it has to have some dirty nasty to it.

Merrill Garbus:
My name is Merrill Garbus and I make music under the name of Tune-Yards. Nate Brenner is a co-writer on most of the songs now that Tune-Yards creates. It was January of 2013 and I was like, “Okay, it’s the New Year and I’m going to start to make a new album.” And so I kind of force myself into this routine where I’d go into my little studio, which was a shipping container that had been made into a little rehearsal studio. So I was there in this like super hot metal box sitting at a computer and trying to make all these demos.

Merrill Garbus:
So I had been taking a lot of walks around Oakland and I was walking around Lake Merritt, which is just down the street from where we live. And I would just walk around that lake a whole lot and passing water fountains, some of them working, some of them not working. And at that time, I was hearing stuff about Conservatives not wanting to pay taxes and I just kind of let my brain wander like, what if no one ever paid taxes and what if no one ever decided that it was worth it to put money into our greater good?

Merrill Garbus:
Seeing that through my imagination that no roads, no sidewalks, no water fountains. I don’t know. There was something about the rhythm of my walking and the rhythm of that phrase that (sings ‘no water in the water fountain’) that just like came out of that. The lyric and the melody and the sing-songiness of it, and the topic of it, I think all came bundled up into one.

Merrill Garbus:
When Tune-Yards began, I was really interested in rhythm being a huge part of that. I just am super obsessed with the interplay between rhythms and this creation of a greater rhythmic whole when you have these multiple rhythmic voices going on at the same time. So the three-two and the other two-three, and that was me in the hotbox just layering claps one over another and just saying, “Okay, that’s a start to something.” And then I kind of would just hear what was missing. Like, where can I fill in even more gaps between those two clapping parts? And what I came up was this (claps). So it’s really those three rhythms laid over each other.

Merrill Garbus:
I love when things are human and not machine-like obviously, as anyone listening to this music would know. It is not perfect by any means, but there’s a tipping point at which I go, “Nope, I was a little bit too off the beat there.” – for use in a song that I really wanted to be a dance song.

Merrill Garbus:
The story of this song is basically that I almost threw it away because I thought it was dumb. It just sounded like really simple. I mean, think about me spending hours trying to work out, laying my claps over one another and then coming up with the words like, no wood in the Woodstock. What the hell does that mean? And I was like, this is so annoying and I’m annoying and everything sucks. And Nate had a hotbox across from mine and he would walk over every afternoon, it’d be like a sanity check and I’d be like, “This sucks.” And he’d be like, “No, no, it’s cool.” And he came in and he played the first baseline that comes in. (base plays)

Merrill Garbus:
And I thought rhythmically, his baseline was awesome, but I thought, no, it sounds too right. Like if you play in that kind of major key, then it’s going to sound too right, and it needs to sound a little bit more wrong.

Merrill Garbus:
We kind of fought about it a little bit in our peaceful way. And then he came up with, if he’s playing in minor – (bass plays in minor) – and all of a sudden the color of the song completely changes, and that was really important to me that the things that the song was talking about to me were really heavy and so it didn’t make sense to just keep the whole song in major. It was like, this is disturbing. That’s kind of where he was like, “Well, how about this?” And I was like, “How about that?” And then we were like, “Okay, both.”

Merrill Garbus:
It’s still this pretty simple major melody. But then you just make the baseline minor, and all of a sudden it’s like the stomach-churning part of the song where all of a sudden, you know that something’s going to go down.

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In 2012, a design group in New York city called Pilot Projects rolled out a strip of red carpet in Union Square, a public park in the middle of Manhattan. They hired a flautist and a waiter in a tuxedo who wore white gloves and had a small towel draped over his forearm, and one-by-one they serve people drinks.

Katie Mingle:
Drinks of water from the public drinking fountain.

Roman Mars:
That’s our own Katie Mingle.

Katie Mingle:
This design group, Pilot Projects held this event to promote their plan to install 100 new drinking fountains in New York City, but not just run-of-the-mill drinking fountains.

Scott Francisco:
We’re talking about drinking fountains that it would be designed by artists and designers and architects.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Scott Francisco from Pilot Projects.

Scott Francisco:
We really want the drinking fountain to be something that people love to use and share with each other and that there’s a sense of pride in the fountains too.

Roman Mars:
Pilot Projects was hoping to put some prestige back on the drinking fountain. Make it cool again. I know what you’re thinking, drinking fountains have never been cool. No one has ever been like, “Yo, see you at the drinking fountain later.”

Katie Mingle:
But you’re wrong. There was a time when everyone was like, “Yo, see you at the drinking fountain later.”

Philip Davies:
On the 21st of April 1859, the streets of London were thronged with crowds of people who came to witness the opening of the first free fresh drinking fountain.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Philip Davies. He wrote a book about historic drinking fountains in London, and he’s talking about the day that the public drinking fountain was the coolest thing in town. The scene was recorded in ‘The London Illustrated News’, so we actually have a pretty good idea of what it was like.

Philip Davies:
Women turned out in their best finery.

Katie Mingle:
The men had their top hats on.

Philip Davies:
Children were clambering over the railings.

Katie Mingle:
Everyone was so pumped. They were like, “Water is the best!”

Philip Davies:
People, I think, couldn’t believe that they were blessed with something that was so important to them.

Roman Mars:
And if you look at the picture in ‘The London Illustrated News’, you can see above the fountain engraved in the stonewall the words, “The first drinking fountain.”

Katie Mingle:
It probably wasn’t the first drinking fountain in the history of the world, but it was the first one in London.

Roman Mars:
This fountain was used by thousands of people a day. And to understand its mass appeal, you have to understand some things about London before this fountain was installed.

Philip Davies:
Well, city life in the 19th century – in London in particular – was an absolute nightmare for the poorer classes.

Katie Mingle:
And a big part of that nightmare was the drinking water. Most people did not have access to water in their homes. Instead, many got water from the nasty cesspool known as the River Thames.

Philip Davies:
The Thames was basically a great sewer.

Roman Mars:
It was full of feces and chemicals. It was not uncommon to see dead animals floating down the river. The Thames was so nasty that London has the distinction of having a period in their history called…

Philip Davies:
The Great Stink. When the smell from the Thames was so bad that they had to evacuate the House of Commons in Westminster by the river.

Katie Mingle:
So some people in London got their water directly from the stinky Thames and other people got it from wells that were also dirty and contaminated with disease.

Roman Mars:
Cholera was rampant. Outbreaks of the disease in 1847 and 1854 killed 58,000 people in London, and the accepted theory at the time was diseases including cholera, were spread through bad smelling air.

Katie Mingle:
But some people were skeptical of this including a scientist named John Snow. John Snow thought that disease might be spread through water

Roman Mars:
And everyone was all like, “You know nothing, John Snow.”

Katie Mingle:
And he was like, “Actually, I know that the water is killing you and I’m going to prove it.”

Peter Gleick:
He went door to door and said, “Are you sick or are members of your family is sick?” And he actually marked down on a map everyone who was sick.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Peter Gleick, an expert on water-related issues at the Pacific Institute.

Peter Gleick:
He identified, in the center of this outbreak, a particular water well. He went, he removed the pump handle so that nobody could pump water from that water well and the cholera epidemic in this neighborhood ended.

Roman Mars:
No one had ever really mapped disease patterns like this before, which is why John Snow is known as the Father of Modern Epidemiology. John Snow made the discovery that cholera was linked to water in 1854.

Katie Mingle:
Shortly after that, a group was formed called the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain Association. They later changed their name to Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association because it was just catchier, you know? And providing clean water for animals also became a central tenet of their mission.

Roman Mars:
They built drinking fountains all over London, including the first one in 1859.

Philip Davies:
Very soon afterwards, within five or six years, over 80 fountains – similar fountains – were erected across London.

Katie Mingle:
By 1879, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain And Cattle Trough Association had built almost 800 drinking fountains in London. The association was made up of wealthy, mostly Christian philanthropists, and they had a couple different agendas in building these fountains.

Roman Mars:
One was clean, safe drinking water for poor people, and the other was temperance.

Katie Mingle:
The Temperance Movement, a social movement that opposed the consumption of alcohol was an early supporter of this new beverage called water. See, there was a terrible epidemic of alcoholism in London at the time, but not just in London, in a lot of other places too, including the United States where the Temperance Movement was also taking hold.

Marta Gutman:
And really the reason that temperance is invented is because alcohol is what people drink.

Katie Mingle:
That’s historian and architect Marta Gutman.

Marta Gutman:
Water is dirty. Water is not understood to be a suitable beverage. Milk is unheard of, except for babies. And coffee and tea are expensive, so that’s it.

Katie Mingle:
Men, women, and even children were drinking alcohol all day long. Alcoholism was destroying families.

Peter Gleick:
In order to push the Temperance Movement, in order to fight against alcohol, part of the argument was there had to be an alternative, and one of the alternatives at this time, once we figured out how to provide safe water was water.

Katie Mingle:
Temperance fountains were built in public parks, at churches, and often right outside the local bar, hoping to snag those few people that weren’t going in because they wanted to get drunk, but just because they were thirsty.

Roman Mars:
The architectural style of these fountains vary greatly depending on who commissioned them, but they weren’t like the drinking fountains you grew up with. They were generally made of stone or granite.

Katie Mingle:
That first fountain in London was fairly simple.

Philip Davies:
But they became quite rapidly much more elaborate and were seen, I suppose, as symbols of philanthropy.

Roman Mars:
Some were ornate Victorian Gothic structures, monuments really.

Philip Davies:
Quite a common, architectural detail here was this lion’s headed spout, the water came out of the mouth of the lion’s head.

Katie Mingle:
The ones built by Christian organizations often included a biblical inscription like …

Philip Davies:
“The fear of the Lord is the fountain of life.”

Roman Mars:
You can still find temperance fountains all over Europe and in the US. There’s one in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. In Oregon, a lumber tycoon/teetotaler named Simon Benson built fountains all over Portland. They came to be known as Benson Bubblers and Portlanders loved them, referred to drinking from them as having a “Benson Highball.” There’s a fountain in Petaluma, California with the inscription, “Total abstinence is the way to handle the alcohol problem.”

Katie Mingle:
Ultimately, drinking fountains didn’t handle our problems with alcohol, but they quickly became part of the public landscape.

Marta Gutman:
What comes out of it is an idea that there should be drinking fountains in cities, that fountains should not be ornamental, that there should water available in public for people to drink.

Peter Gleick:
As building codes were developed, people started to require a certain number of water fountains in, for example, stadiums, sports stadiums, or in music halls. I think that became an important part of our municipal design.

Katie Mingle:
But it took a while to refine certain aspects of the design.

Roman Mars:
For years, drinking fountains were sort of like a public faucet. You’d set your cup under a spigot and turn on the water. And this cup, it was a ‘common cup’ that hung from a chain and was meant to be used by all.

Philip Davies:
And then a little sign that says, “Please replace the cup.”

Katie Mingle:
It was actually a pretty big battle to get rid of the common cup. Public health officials knew it was spreading disease, but people weren’t in the habit of carrying their own cup around.

Roman Mars:
In 1912, the very first federal regulation on our drinking water was passed to abolish the common cup at drinking fountains.

Katie Mingle:
Meanwhile, a drinking fountain was designed that did not require a cup. It was similar to the drinking fountains we use now, the difference being that the water came out in a vertical jet that shot straight up.

Roman Mars:
Which is exactly like a bidet but for your mouth and all of your backwash would just drip straight down onto the spout or people would just put their lips onto the spout. This vertical jet style drinking fountain was called, ironically, a sanitary drinking fountain.

Katie Mingle:
And in 1920, the American Water Works Association issued a sternly worded report that begins, “The war against the common drinking cup has been won. This victory, however, must not be allowed to blind us to the dangers lurking in the sanitary drinking fountain.”

Roman Mars:
The report goes on to detail a study of one of these so-called sanitary drinking fountains.

Katie Mingle:
“Of the 47 people who use the fountain in almost every instance, the lips were placed completely around the metal ball from which the water spurted and one small boy acted as though he were trying to swallow the whole machinery.”

Roman Mars:
And it goes on.

Katie Mingle:
“Of the 47 people, three looked as though they were unmistakably victims of tuberculosis, and three had eruptions on their faces.”

Katie Mingle:
They advised putting cages around the spouts so that we couldn’t wrap our mouths around them and finally they advise switching to a slanted or arc jet of water.

Roman Mars:
This, along with the guard around the spout, proved to be the design that stuck.

Katie Mingle:
Finally, a drinking fountain we could all get behind, sort of.

Archive Tape:
“And I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”

Katie Mingle:
For a lot of Americans, the public drinking fountain conjures an image that has nothing to do with the slanted jet or the common cup or with temperance. It’s an image of segregation.

Marta Gutman:
The segregated drinking fountain during the Jim Crow era in the South, I mean this is one of the images that haunt us, right?

Katie Mingle:
Sharing water made racist America uncomfortable, whether it was drinking fountains or swimming pools.

Marta Gutman:
There’s this huge anxiety about the contact of black and white bodies.

Roman Mars:
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregated public facilities including drinking fountains, although a handful hung on in the South for a few more years.

Katie Mingle:
Even with that darkest period of the drinking fountain’s history over, it’s never really been as beloved as it was when they opened that first one in London in 1859.

Roman Mars:
Recently, public drinking fountains have met their most formidable opponent.

Peter Gleick:
So in the United States, we consume nine or 10 billion gallons a year of expensive bottled water, and it’s growing 5% to 10% a year.

Katie Mingle:
That’s Peter Gleick again of the Pacific Institute. He also wrote a book called ‘Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.’

Peter Gleick:
The consequence of that is billions and billions of plastic bottles that have to be thrown away or recycled.

Katie Mingle:
Another consequence, drinking fountains are starting to disappear from the public landscape.

Peter Gleick:
Despite the fact that many people believe public water is sort of a standard part of any urban design, we have seen movement away from water fountains.

Peter Gleick:
The University of Central Florida, in 2007, opened a brand new football stadium. They had built a stadium with no public water fountains.

Roman Mars:
And on opening day, 45,000 people showed up to watch the UCF Knights play the Texas Longhorns.

Peter Gleick:
It was an incredibly hot day.

Katie Mingle:
Almost 100 degrees, so everyone was thirsty.

Roman Mars:
Bottled water was for sale of course, but it costs $3 and then the bottled water sold out.

Katie Mingle:
18 people were taken to hospitals and 60 more were treated by local campus personnel for heat-related illnesses.

Roman Mars:
At first, the university was unapologetic and then some angry students organized into a group called ‘Knights For Free Water.’ They demanded that drinking fountains be installed in the stadium. “We’re not out for blood, we just want water,” they said. The local press came up with a name for this scandal, you’ll never guess.

Katie Mingle:
Yes, it was Watergate.

Roman Mars:
And finally, the university was forced to concede. They installed 50 drinking fountains in their stadium.

Katie Mingle:
The ‘Knights For Free Water’ probably didn’t know anything about their foremothers and fathers and the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, but it’s because of them and their teetotaling brethren in the United States that we’ve come to expect access to clean, free water in public places.

Roman Mars:
If Watergate proved anything, you know besides Nixon was a liar and a cheat, it’s that drinking fountains still matter and when they’re gone, we notice. Because even though we, as a society, have mostly rejected the idea of temperance and embrace the idea that we love booze forever, sometimes water is still the best.

Roman Mars:
Special thanks to Marta Gutman, a talk she gave on her book, ‘City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland’ inspired this story.

Roman Mars:
Bonus fact, the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain And Cattle Trough Association still exists, but they changed their name again. Now they’re just The Drinking Fountain Association. They still maintain London’s historic fountains and build new ones in developing countries.

Roman Mars:
The design group we mentioned at the beginning of the piece, Pilot Projects, is trying to build 100 new drinking fountains in New York. They’re still trying to make it happen, but they need the city to partner with them.

Scott Francisco:
If you’re really into this, write a note to the mayor’s office and ask for better drinking fountains and mention that ‘100 Fountains Project’ as part of the solution.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman, Kurt Kohlstedt, and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 KALW San Francisco and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, an architecture and interiors firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Roman Mars:
While Katie was working on this piece, we collectively couldn’t get the Tune-Yards song, ‘Water Fountain’, out of our heads. And it just so happens that Hrishi at Song Exploder did an episode about that song, which was one of our absolute favorite episodes so we thought we’d add it here as a little bonus. Enjoy.

Merrill Garbus:
I want my music to be a product of the world that I am growing up in and growing older in. So if this song is going to exist as a Tune-Yards song, it has to have some dirty nasty to it.

Merrill Garbus:
My name is Merrill Garbus and I make music under the name of Tune-Yards. Nate Brenner is a co-writer on most of the songs now that Tune-Yards creates. It was January of 2013 and I was like, “Okay, it’s the New Year and I’m going to start to make a new album.” And so I kind of force myself into this routine where I’d go into my little studio, which was a shipping container that had been made into a little rehearsal studio. So I was there in this like super hot metal box sitting at a computer and trying to make all these demos.

Merrill Garbus:
So I had been taking a lot of walks around Oakland and I was walking around Lake Merritt, which is just down the street from where we live. And I would just walk around that lake a whole lot and passing water fountains, some of them working, some of them not working. And at that time, I was hearing stuff about Conservatives not wanting to pay taxes and I just kind of let my brain wander like, what if no one ever paid taxes and what if no one ever decided that it was worth it to put money into our greater good?

Merrill Garbus:
Seeing that through my imagination that no roads, no sidewalks, no water fountains. I don’t know. There was something about the rhythm of my walking and the rhythm of that phrase that (sings ‘no water in the water fountain’) that just like came out of that. The lyric and the melody and the sing-songiness of it, and the topic of it, I think all came bundled up into one.

Merrill Garbus:
When Tune-Yards began, I was really interested in rhythm being a huge part of that. I just am super obsessed with the interplay between rhythms and this creation of a greater rhythmic whole when you have these multiple rhythmic voices going on at the same time. So the three-two and the other two-three, and that was me in the hotbox just layering claps one over another and just saying, “Okay, that’s a start to something.” And then I kind of would just hear what was missing. Like, where can I fill in even more gaps between those two clapping parts? And what I came up was this (claps). So it’s really those three rhythms laid over each other.

Merrill Garbus:
I love when things are human and not machine like obviously, as anyone listening to this music would know. It is not perfect by any means, but there’s a tipping point at which I go, “Nope, I was a little bit too off the beat there.” – for use in a song that I really wanted to be a dance song.

Merrill Garbus:
The story of this song is basically that I almost threw it away because I thought it was dumb. It just sounded like really simple. I mean, think about me spending hours trying to work out, laying my claps over one another and then coming up with the words like, no wood in the Woodstock. What the hell does that mean? And I was like, this is so annoying and I’m annoying and everything sucks. And Nate had a hotbox across from mine and he would walk over every afternoon, it’d be like a sanity check and I’d be like, “This sucks.” And he’d be like, “No, no, it’s cool.” And he came in and he played the first baseline that comes in. (base plays)

Merrill Garbus:
And I thought rhythmically, his baseline was awesome, but I thought, no, it sounds too right. Like if you play in that kind of major key, then it’s going to sound too right, and it needs to sound a little bit more wrong.

Merrill Garbus:
We kind of fought about it a little bit in our peaceful way. And then he came up with, if he’s playing in minor – (bass plays in minor) – and all of a sudden the color of the song completely changes, and that was really important to me that the things that the song was talking about to me were really heavy and so it didn’t make sense to just keep the whole song in major. It was like, this is disturbing. That’s kind of where he was like, “Well, how about this?” And I was like, “How about that?” And then we were like, “Okay, both.”

Merrill Garbus:
It’s still this pretty simple major melody. But then you just make the baseline minor, and all of a sudden it’s like the stomach churning part of the song where all of a sudden, you know that something’s going to go down.

Merrill Garbus:
Now, there are a lot of people involved in Tune-Yards, the record label and our manager and they were like, “This is it, man. This is the single, this is the catchy one. Can you please just make it less dissonant?” And I was like, “No, I really can’t.” I mean Tune-Yards started when I was listening to a ton of dancehall reggae. And there’s something about the tradition of reggae that for so many reasons there’s this dissonance and this kind of dub sensibility where there are things that feel wrong or don’t link up exactly, but there’s so much implied in that disagreement between elements.

Merrill Garbus:
There’s some reggae albums where you feel like the singer came in and sang and couldn’t hear the track and then the track that they ended up putting underneath the singer is like a totally different song with a different key.

Merrill Garbus:
So I love that sense of wrong parts put together, but then when it comes back together as a whole, it has this whole different conversation of wrongness. You know, ‘no water in the water fountain’, it’s like a horrible concept. Even more so now in California. But in 2013 too, we were talking about the drought and it was terrifying to me to allow my imagination to go that far and think of life without water coming out of your taps.

Merrill Garbus:
You know, even just talking about these things now it’s like this really uncomfortable tension in my stomach, and I think that’s the feeling that I love to evoke in songs where I’m not writing pretty songs for people to fall in love to necessarily. I’m writing songs that sound more like the truth of the world to me. And that has to mean that, that’s literally built into the song that’s literally built into the harmonies or the friction or that grading sense of the song. And that’s kind of why … I don’t know, I was listening to that drum machine stem, and at first it’s got a cute little cow bell sound and then throughout the song as you get to the end of the song, it’s like this crazy distorted mess of a drum machine. (drum machine plays)

Merrill Garbus:
I found this awesome water bottle at the store and it’s just like these things that kind of fit into the world as a song, like spare parts kind of sounds. Like a water bottle just evokes water somehow. Even if you’re not saying, “Oh, it’s a water bottle.” There’s just something about it that it’s like, “Yeah, that fits in.”

Merrill Garbus:
So this is where the brilliant John Hill comes in because he introduced the laser sound. Now, we were so nervous working with other producers, and I’m very possessive of the term producer because I feel like, I am my own producer, but we took the song in at the request of some of our label people and played it for John Hill who’s worked on a lot of cool stuff -Rihanna and M.I.A. – and so he had those lasers for us, and I played those lasers on a sample pad with a stick. So we all agree that that was again, another dancehall element that amps up the song when it’s like, and now the lasers come in. (laser sounds)

Merrill Garbus:
You know what it is? Oh my gosh. That’s just me and my voice and my tongue, making some crazy roll in there. But then sampled and played on a keyboard so that we did with John Hill as well. We sampled my voice and then I was able to play it on a midi triggering keyboard, and I could play chords with my own voice doing that crazy gurgling noise.

Merrill Garbus:
I am so captivated by music. The ability to speak without words. The sound itself is telling the story and it’s kind of like a big puzzle that even I am trying to figure out. It’s so fun. Recording is amazing. s:
Now, there are a lot of people involved in Tune-Yards, the record label and our manager and they were like, “This is it, man. This is the single, this is the catchy one. Can you please just make it less dissonant?” And I was like, “No, I really can’t.” I mean Tune-Yards started when I was listening to a ton of dancehall reggae. And there’s something about the tradition of reggae that for so many reasons there’s this dissonance and this kind of dub sensibility where there are things that feel wrong or don’t link up exactly, but there’s so much implied in that disagreement between elements.

Merrill Garbus:
There’s some reggae albums where you feel like the singer came in and sang and couldn’t hear the track and then the track that they ended up putting underneath the singer is like a totally different song with a different key.

Merrill Garbus:
So I love that sense of wrong parts put together, but then when it comes back together as a whole, it has this whole different conversation of wrongness. You know, ‘no water in the water fountain’, it’s like a horrible concept. Even more so now in California. But in 2013 too, we were talking about the drought and it was terrifying to me to allow my imagination to go that far and think of life without water coming out of your taps.

Merrill Garbus:
You know, even just talking about these things now it’s like this really uncomfortable tension in my stomach, and I think that’s the feeling that I love to evoke in songs where I’m not writing pretty songs for people to fall in love to necessarily. I’m writing songs that sound more like the truth of the world to me. And that has to mean that, that’s literally built into the song that’s literally built into the harmonies or the friction or that grading sense of the song. And that’s kind of why … I don’t know, I was listening to that drum machine stem, and at first it’s got a cute little cow bell sound and then throughout the song as you get to the end of the song, it’s like this crazy distorted mess of a drum machine. (drum machine plays)

Merrill Garbus:
I found this awesome water bottle at the store and it’s just like these things that kind of fit into the world as a song, like spare parts kind of sounds. Like a water bottle just evokes water somehow. Even if you’re not saying, “Oh, it’s a water bottle.” There’s just something about it that it’s like, “Yeah, that fits in.”

Merrill Garbus:
So this is where the brilliant John Hill comes in because he introduced the laser sound. Now, we were so nervous working with other producers, and I’m very possessive of the term producer because I feel like, I am my own producer, but we took the song in at the request of some of our label people and played it for John Hill who’s worked on a lot of cool stuff -Rihanna and M.I.A. – and so he had those lasers for us, and I played those lasers on a sample pad with a stick. So we all agree that that was again, another dancehall element that amps up the song when it’s like, and now the lasers come in. (laser sounds)

Merrill Garbus:
You know what it is? Oh my gosh. That’s just me and my voice and my tongue, making some crazy roll in there. But then sampled and played on a keyboard so that we did with John Hill as well. We sampled my voice and then I was able to play it on a midi triggering keyboard, and I could play chords with my own voice doing that crazy gurgling noise.

Merrill Garbus:
I am so captivated by music. The ability to speak without words. The sound itself is telling the story and it’s kind of like a big puzzle that even I am trying to figure out. It’s so fun. Recording is amazing.

  1. Hello from Japan! Interestingly, here, the stereotypical “park water fountain” is the type with the ball on top and a twist-spigot sort of water flow control. I’d thought for a while that that was an interestingly old-fashioned approach to public drinking water until, just last weekend, after seven years of living here, I saw on a train platform a water faucet at roughly knee level, labeled “drinking water” in Japanese, that actually had a metal cup on a chain hanging from it.

    Japan, as it turns out, is a shockingly old-fashioned country in a whole lot of ways, despite its public image.

  2. Josh

    I didn’t hear the credits for who did the songs in this one and they don’t seem to be listed here. Is there any way to find out?

  3. Jeff

    I really enjoyed the episode, but I thought it was ironic that at the end of a episode about how a charitable organization recognized a need and helped to rid London of cholera, you chose to close with a political song that slams those people who believe that it should be charitable organizations, not government, that provide for the common good.

  4. Chris

    I’m not sure how you get that from the song Water Fountains. The song was inspired by what things would be like without any public services at all, but it never rejects charities. I don’t think anyone thinks that public waterworks should be run entirely by charitable organizations.

  5. Josh Skarf

    The Roman world was full of drinking fountains and nymphaion. Since London started out as a Roman city, I find it hard to believe that there were no earlier drinking fountains. There is a passage in a Roman-period passage in rabbinic literature dealing with idolatry which reads “A person my not press his mouth against a fountain in the shape of a face in order to drink, since it looks as if he is kissing an idol. However, he can cup his hands to receive the water.” This passage implies that (a) there were such fountains for drinking and (b) people did drink directly from them, in contrast to what the Rabbis wished. Archaeologists even found a fountain shaped like Pan that sprayed water out its mouth in the city of Ashkelon.

  6. Great episode! I used to pass a temperance fountain every day on my way into work in DC. There’s a notable one on Pennsylvania Avenue right across from the National Archives: https://www.instagram.com/p/quk16uML0W/?taken-by=jimaustin1902

    I was also at that first UCF game at Brighthouse stadium and not having water was pretty terrible. The effect was magnified by the fact that the all aluminum stadium has basically no shade and no breeze unless you’re way up at the top. It was also an interesting game because the stadium flexed a lot more than it does now. It really did feel jumping on a trampoline when Kernkraft 400 was playing.

    1. Katie Mingle

      Hi Steve, et al.

      I’ve added the names of the songs and artists we used in the show at the end of the article. Thanks! – Katie

  7. Evil Jim

    Very fascinating as always, but the episode segues from filthy water causing disease to the history of the drinking fountain, without ever addressing where these new fountains were getting their water. It seems to assume a source other than what was used previously, but I’m still curious. If it was piped in from elsewhere, where were these sources?

    Also, I have to shake a friendly finger at Roman due to the misleading title, “Fountain Drinks.” I was originally hoping this would be about fountain drinks from soda fountains & the like as I had been sipping on a soda fountain drink at the time.

  8. Rob Corzine

    As has been mentioned, the Roman imperial water service would be more than a little surprised to hear. Victorians described as the builders of the first water fountains. They had a notably high view of their work. In the words of on of its directors, Frontinus, “Who would compare with our mighty aqueducts the idle Pyramids or the famous but useless works of the Greeks?”

  9. Jim

    Roman, I love 99pi. I have one request – your voice on almost all episodes is really low in pitch and soft when compared to everything else on the show. And while listening to 99pi while driving I can barely here what you are saying unless I crank up the volume and then the rest of the show is screaming at me. Can you please adjust this for the shows?

  10. vesnavk

    In one episode, the comedy series Parks and Recreation features a public health initiative to stop the dimwitted townspeople from practicing the odd local custome of putting their lips around the entire spigot. It’s meant as an over-the-top gag — but now I learn it really did happen in history! Enter “Parks and Recreation drinking fountain” to see clips.

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