Public Drinking Fountains

Early

A very early (if not the first) Vancouver water fountain was situated at the corner which, from the 1930s, was known as Pioneer Place but is better known, today, as Pigeon Park. This piece of real estate was useless for much of anything, and so the CPR (which owned it), gave it to the City (with typical CPR ‘generosity’).

I have been instructed [said CPR Land Commissioner, J. M. Browning] by the trustees of the Vancouver townsite to offer to the city, free of charge, that triangular piece of ground at the intersection of Hastings and Carrall Streets, measuring 17 ft. 6 in. x 16 ft. 1 in. x 11 ft. 8 in., upon which to erect a public drinking fountain.

Daily World, 2 April 1889

I haven’t been able to find any visual trace of a fountain at that corner in any of our local, public image archives and cannot find any visual trace of a fountain in the 1986 photo shown below, although, oddly, there is a fountain present there today.

CVA 791-0790 - 337 Carrall Street (revised address 1 West Hastings Street) 1986

CVA 791-0790 – PIgeon Park on the NW corner of Hastings and Carrall. There is no sign of a drinking fountain on the corner at this time. 1986.

New Slaking Stations

In 1904, it was reported in the local press that a few new drinking fountains (constructed of concrete and faced with portland cement) would be installed in the city that year (Province, 17 June 1904):

  • At the ‘triangle’ on the corner of Georgia at Pender streets. There is still a ‘triangle’ there today, but it is populated primarily by flagpoles. Few pedestrians walk past this corner these days, so it isn’t surprising that no fountain is extant.
  • On the road at the base of the reservoir within Stanley Park. This is almost certainly gone today.
  • The location of a third fountain was still up for grabs in June, 1904, but it was thought likely to be placed at “the depot” (which, I take to be the main B.C.E.R. depot in the city).

By 1912, ten other quaffing sites had been chosen by the city. To the best of my knowledge, there are no drinking fountains today at any of these locations:

  • City Hall (it was located, at that time, on Main Street, just south of what today is Carnegie Centre)
  • Hastings at the old courthouse (what would ultimately become Victory Square)
  • Corner of Georgia and Nichol
  • Fifteenth and Westminster Road (Main Street)
  • Powell and Victoria
  • Victoria and Keefer
  • Commercial and Broadway
  • Cornwall and Yew
  • Heather and Broadway
  • Granville and Davie

Two Types

There were two sorts of drinking fountains which were popular in Vancouver over a large chunk of our history.  If you grew up in the 1960s or later, you are likely accustomed to water fountains that conform to a pretty standard form: a unit with a device on it which you press or twist that sends water out the top from which you slurp to take in a mouthful (or, perhaps more typically, less than a mouthful!)

Until the mid-20th-century, things were different.

Memorials

Our forbears, for reasons which I don’t pretend to understand, often considered it fitting, when a major personality died, to create a memorial to him/her that included a public drinking fountain.

Three Vancouver examples of this type of fountain are discussed below.¹

King Ed VII: One is the King Edward VII memorial, which, after it was created by local sculptor, Charles Marega, for the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), was located on the south side of Georgia Street in front of the then-new courthouse building.  Here is my favourite photo of it:

From Van & Beyond - King Ed with Girls drinking

From Vancouver and Beyond, Thirkell and Scullion. Girls drinking at the King Ed VII Memorial.

What are the two young gals drinking from? Well you may ask! They were tin cups that were attached to the memorial with metal chains. Yes, community cups, quite literally! (I can hear your 21st century, germ-sensitive self reacting to this. I know. Me, too.) Water flowed from the mouth of the lion figure and into the basin over which the girls were drinking.² Today, the Edward VII fountain has been shifted out of its proud place in front of the courthouse/Art Gallery has been moved to the west side of the Art Gallery. It has suffered significantly from vandalism and wear/tear over the years.

Vicky: Another example of a memorial fountain — one which pre-dated Ed VII by a few years — was the Queen Victoria memorial (Victoria died in 1901; Ed, Victoria’s son, died in 1910).

Mon P32.1 - [Women in roller skates around the Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain] ca 1940

CVA Mon P32.1 – Women in roller skates around the Queen Victoria Memorial Fountain, ca 1940. The girl on far right has hold of one of the metal chains that held one of the bronze cups once upon a time. It was long gone, by the time this image was taken.

This monument has been within Stanley Park from the date it was first established there (in 1906) to the present. Victoria’s memorial was designed by local artist, James Blomfield. The cups (which had disappeared by the time the above 1940s-era image was made, leaving just the metal chains) were made of bronze, rather than tin.

The Maple Tree: This final example of a memorial fountain commemorated not a deceased person but a former tree (and the memories associated with it by Vancouver pioneers). The memorial plaque, which originally resided above the fountain (as shown below) was removed from the fountain pedestal (the fountain was scrapped, probably during a 1970s refit of Gastown) and integrated instead into the ‘Gassy Jack’ monument.

The Maple Tree Fountain bridged the two sorts of drinking fountains in Vancouver: not only was it s memorial, it was also a ‘bubbler’.

CVA 677-167 - Drinking fountain at Powell and Carrall Streets [Maple Tree monument] 1928

CVA 677-167 – Drinking fountain at Powell and Carrall Streets. The Maple Tree monument and Drinking Fountain, 1928. Charles Marega (the gent nearest to the fountain monument) was its creator

Bubblers

Two disadvantages of the memorial sort of fountain were germ issues and the fact that the cups were very prone to vandalism (they were invariably stolen).

Bubblers didn’t have the second problem; but they still had the former issue.

Bubbler drinking fountains (sometimes called – with more than a little wishful thinking – “sanitary” fountains) bubbled the water upward, as most fountains do today. The crucial difference is that public bubblers in the city until about the 1960s didn’t have an on/off valve, so they bubbled water ‘eternally’, and a person could slake his/her thirst by simply bending over the fountain and interrupting the stream with their mouth.

The problem with this design was that birds, dogs, and other critters liked the bubblers, too, and weren’t shy about partaking of its life-giving flow when humans weren’t using the devices.

Province columnist, D. A. McGregor, expanded on this shortcoming of bubblers in this 1948 piece:

Where the diagonal pedestrian traffic way through Victory Square divides across Cambie Street from the Province office, is a bubbling drinking fountain much used by birds and dogs and humans. The sparrows have a rather hard time of it when thirst drives them to the fountain, for they must perch precariously on the edge of the cement basin and take their drink a drop at a time. The pigeons having more bulk, do better.

Some of the dogs show considerable ingenuity at the fountain. One little black spaniel comes quite frequently, always approaches joyously with a run and a jump that lands him square on top of the basin and there he sits and laps and laps. Other little dogs look longingly and pass by. Some have to be held up to the water spout by their owners. The larger dogs stand up much like people, and yesterday a big old fellow embraced the whole fountain with his forepaws while he quenched his thirst for a good five minutes, pausing now and then to take in the scenery.

The humans seem seldom to come by when the birds or dogs are at the fountain. so, they do not know when they drink they drink from the bird bath and from the dogs’ dish. It may be all right at that. Perhaps what the patrons of the fountain do not know doesn’t hurt them, and perhaps Fido’s tongue is antiseptic and the much-licked water spout quite sanitary. It merely occurred to me that the park board and the medical health officer might like to know what is going on, and might be persuaded to place a bird bath and dog trough at the foot of the fountain.

Province 11 May 1948

CVA 180-3647 - Dog drinking from water fountain 194- PNE

CVA 180-3647 – Dog drinking from water a bubbler drinking fountain in Hastings Park. A human looks on. 194-

I applaud Mr McGregor for his concern and for making his fellow-residents aware of this public health problem, but it seems to me that his proposed solution would have had little effect as long as bubblers continued to bubble ‘eternally’ with no shut off/on valve.”

Why Did Bubblers Persist in Vancouver So Long?

The public health issues associated with memorial fountains was solved by their other disadvantage: cups were stolen almost as soon as the memorials were erected!

But what about bubblers? Why is it that Vancouver allowed these things to continue until roughly the 1960s — when fountains were by default in the ‘off’ mode?

I was able to suss out at least three possible reasons:

Reason 1: Anti-Alcohol Movement. There were those who maintained that if fountains were readily available, they would serve to discourage folks from entering saloons (Daily World, 2 Oct 1914).

Reason 2: City cheapness. I’m certain that lack of technology for a ‘default off’ bubbler was not a reason. It may have been that this option was more expensive, however. And from what I saw in press reports, the city seemed to always been on the lookout for cheaper models of bubblers, over the years. Oddly, it wasn’t until the late 1950s, when a major drought hit the Vancouver area, that folks seemed to give much consideration to the cost of lost water due to the ‘eternal’ bubblers.

Reason 3: Willful ignorance. The general public didn’t seem to be hugely worked up about the public health issues associated with bubblers (if the few letters to editors can be taken as indicative).

It wasn’t that there wasn’t public health information warning locals away from the dangers of fountains. A New Westminster physician by the name of Dr. Hall was quoted in the Province as early as 1906, remarking on a connection between tuberculosis and public fountains:

The greatest need . . . is for the taking of ordinary precautions against the spread of [tuberculosis]. Some of the very worst centres of infection are the public drinking fountains. Not only tuberculosis, but all manner of diseases are spread from these . . . . If a man wants a drink when he is out, let him go to a saloon — they will give him a drink of water for nothing; but avoid the drinking fountain.

Province, 26 Oct 1906

Well, Dr. Hall has put Reason 1 and 3 in their place; and I suspect that he wouldn’t have much positive to say about Reason 2! What is monetary cost when compared with threats to public health?

 

Notes

¹Other memorial type drinking fountains included: the Pauline Johnson memorial in Stanley Park (yes, when it was first unveiled, it had a “drinking fountain” component) – Province, 22 May 1922. Also the Joe Fortes memorial was originally, in part, a drinking fountain. (Province, 25 June 1927). The final memorial fountain that I could find being erected in the city was one that was in 1957 dedicated to the memory of Mrs. Sally Birmingham and Mrs. Agnes Lutes. It was sponsored by the Kiwassa Girls Club and was located at the Club headquarters at 600 Vernon Drive.

²For more about the King Ed VII monument, see this VAIW post. This other VAIW ‘fountain’ post may also be of interest.

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3 Responses to Public Drinking Fountains

  1. lhhouben says:

    Very interesting…I used to drink from the public school fountains and thought nothing of it! I’m still alive….

  2. mdm says:

    But were the school fountains of your day eternal “‘bubblers” or were they “off” by default and required the user to turn them on before taking a drink (my experience is that school fountains required you to turn them on) — in which case, no problem health-wise! Thanks, L.

  3. lhhouben says:

    We had to turn them on. They were very cold and we never thought of germs…we were a hardy lot.

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