Monday, May 14, 2018

The Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain


Temperance goals were one of the main drivers of drinking fountain donations in late-nineteenth century America. One of the grandest examples is the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain in Philadelphia.

In 1869, Dr. Wilson Cary Swann started the Philadelphia Fountain Society. “Believing that lack of water for workers and animals led to intemperance and crime, the society provided fountains and watering troughs throughout the city and park so that workers could quench their thirst in public instead of entering local taverns.”[1] The Catholic Abstinence Union gave a huge fountain in Philadelphia, the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain: “it was thought by the Abstinence Union that a fountain of water surrounded by statues of prominent Irish Catholic Revolutionary Heroes would be a lasting memorial to the principles of the anti-alcohol movement and of the patriotism of the Irish in America.”[2] Other information about Dr. Swann seems to be lost to history, though – the Philadelphia Historical Society has no information on him or his fountain.The fountain is a massive stone number, a huge basin with five stone saints rising out of it, each with spigots to drink from.

I went to check out the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain on a recent trip to Philadelphia. It’s in Fairmount Park, a 2,000-acre park a few miles upriver from downtown, with attractions like a Japanese Garden, an arboretum, and Boathouse Row, which appears in every collection of scenic postcards from Philadelphia. But the Catholic Abstinence Fountain isn’t near any of these attractions. I hiked across vast, empty, overgrown fields, parched and thirsty, and finally came upon the former fountain. It’s now the center of a traffic circle. A twenty-foot wide, sidewalk-less road ran around it, and as the summer sun beat down on me, there was no water in sight. Grass sprouted out of cracks in the stone, and the basins were bone dry. An empty Crystal Geyser water bottle sat abandoned next to one of the spigots. I could see where gushing fountains used to surround Moses, where a huge central basin would have been filled with water and reflected the sky. Down the road, several cars had gathered to tailgate before a nearby concert, and a couple of the concertgoers wandered around the fountain. One of them chatted on the phone and sipped bottled water. A young couple took long drafts from their beer cans and wandered aimlessly around the dry fountain. I think it’s safe to say that Dr. Wilson Cary Swann would have been disappointed. An Uber rescued me.

[1] Jim McClelland, Fountains of Philadelphia (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2005), 6.
[2] Jim McClelland, Fountains of Philadelphia (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2005), 16.


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