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Tompkins Temperance

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From its days as beer-loving Kleindeutschland to the throngs of SantaCon attendees today, the East Village has been known – for good or ill – as a place where it’s not difficult to find a drink. It’s partly that reputation that resulted in the placement of a unique piece of functional art in the neighborhood’s center. Within Tompkins Square Park there is a fountain surrounded by four Doric columns and topped by a bronze sculpture and canopy that’s inscribed on four sides with the words Faith, Hope, Charity, and Temperance. It’s that last word, Temperance, that gives one the hint that this may be more than an elaborate water fountain.photo 1
The Temperance in that inscription refers to temperance in abstaining from alcohol, and is tied to several historic waves of anti-alcohol movements in the United States. This “temperance fountain” in the park was the gift of a Connecticut-born dentist, businessman, and temperance proponent named Henry Cogswell, whose business in San Francisco during the Gold Rush earned him a fortune. The Tompkins Square fountain was but one of a planned fifty temperance fountains that Cogswell sponsored across the country, including in Washington, D.C. and Boston. Many of the fountains and their sculpture were rejected by other cities — or in the cases of San Francisco and Dubuque, Iowa, torn down by angry citizens. The statue that crowns this fountain is a representation of the Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth and cup-bearer to the gods on Mount Olympus. Here in place of ambrosia, she carries water to the masses.

In New York, Cogswell teamed up with the Moderation Society, which had been working to improve public health on the Lower East Side, to get the fountain approved and installed in 1891. The idea behind installing the fountains was to encourage the populace to drink healthy water instead of alcoholic beverages. The reasoning was that if clean and safe drinking water were made easily available, people would be disinclined to turn to beer or hard liquor (which because of its alcohol content was more inhospitable to pathogens, but had other obvious negatives when over-consumed).

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It would be almost another thirty years after the fountain was installed before the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Volstead Act would usher in the brief but tumultuous experiment with Prohibition in the United States. You can read more about the Prohibition years in the Village in a previous Off the Grid post.

The fountain was originally flanked by four ornamental lamps with red, white and blue tinted glass (see 1904 image below), but the city’s Parks Department notes that they “long ago vanished.” One hundred years after its installation, the fountain, which had been vandalized and deteriorated in the past decades, was restored by the city in 1992 and still provides clean drinking water today.

The fountain in 1904. Image via Museum of the City of New York.
The fountain in 1904. Image via Museum of the City of New York.

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