Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Perambulating Fountains" of the Lower East Side

Source: Directory of New York Charities, 1900

You are probably asking yourself, "What on earth is a 'perambulating fountain'?"

Source: Directory of
New York Charities, 1900
Well, if you lived on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, you would probably be very familiar with its common term, "ice-water fountain."

Before refrigerators, running taps in every apartment and public fountains -- let alone bottled water -- there were horse-drawn wagons that toured the local slums during summer months, offering free ice and water to overheated citizens.

The first cart embarked on June 15, 1891, paid for and organized by the Moderation Society, a temperance-advocating charity organization founded on the Lower East Side in 1879.

Source: nycgovparks.org
A tank holding one-hundred gallons of water and kept cold by four tons of ice a day was pulled from one end of the neighborhood to the other, stopping from five to thirty minutes at each location. Any ice that remained by the evening was given away in small packages at the wagon's final stop -- the Five Points.

It took the Moderation Society eleven years to secure the proper permits and political support to launch the water wagon initiative, which was paid for by donations to the organization.

Milwaukee Sentinel, Nov 25, 1910
The institution's charitable endeavors did not end with ice-wagons; the Moderation Society was successful in having permanent fountains installed in several locations in this city and others like Washington DC, San Fransisco, Boston and Newark. One tangible remnant of the society's work is a familiar sight for most Lower East Siders -- the Temperance Fountain in Tompkins Square Park, installed in 1890 (pictured, left).

By the 1910s, pro alcohol-abstinence organizations like the Salvation Army began what were essentially marketing campaigns -- highly publicized "water wagon parades" -- with the goal of recruiting "boozers" to "get on the wagon" (meaning, exchange booze for water).

A new American catch-phrase was adopted from campaigns like these; those who made pledges to quit drinking were considered "on the water wagon." And those who returned to alcohol were said to have "fallen off the water wagon" (since shortened to "on the wagon" and "off the wagon.")