Recognizing that the scarcity of public fountains encouraged laboring men to gather in places that served alcohol, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) decided to build a number of public water fountains that would serve the public while also reminding them of the dangers of alcohol. This fountain, created by the members of Richmond's WCTU (headed by Sarah Hoge), and dedicated on May 14, 1927, is one of the last fountains created by the WCTU. At the time of its creation, the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act barred the commercial production, sale, and distribution of alcohol, but thanks to bootleggers and strong demand, it was still easy for Richmond residents to obtain a drink that contained something much stronger than was available at this fountain.
The quest to eliminate the consumption of alcohol began in earnest a century prior to this fountain, and quickly became one of the leading reform campaigns that united religious and business leaders in the 1830s. According to historians who have labeled this period as the Alcoholic Republic the average adult consumed about seven gallons of pure alcohol in the 1830s. This amount is roughly 3 times the amount consumed by the average modern American. In this period, women had few political rights and were almost entirely dependent on their husbands. As a result, the alcoholism of fathers and husbands plunged many families into economic ruin and even led to many cases of abuse. Working with male clergy and elected officials, women supported and even led numerous campaigns to ban spirits in the 1830s. Following the Civil War, a second temperance movement began with the organization of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. The objective of this group was to diminish alcohol abuse, especially among men. Erecting public drinking fountains, such as the WCTU of Richmond Fountain, was one of the tactics the WCTU used to keep people away from saloons.
The WCTU has its roots in the Women’s Temperance Crusade,
a spontaneous protest that took place in 1873. In that year, a group of women in Hillsboro, Ohio, launched a series of public demonstrations. Emphasizing their roles as matriarchs and enforcers of public morality, the women organized a demonstration at every saloon in the city wherein the women publicly prayed for the forgiveness of the errant barkeepers and patrons. They also demanded the shopkeepers to pledge to no
longer sell alcohol. Within the next year, these demonstrations were occurring in over 130 communities.
These demonstrations led to a movement that culminated in an 1874 convention in Ohio and the creation of the WCTU. During this convention, the WCTU strongly advocated to
erect public drinking fountains to ensure that thirsty men had access to water
without having to walk into a saloon, as this could lead them to stay in and
have stronger drinks.
The effort to create public water fountains ebbed and flowed in subsequent decades. This fountain was created by the members of the WCTU of Richmond in the years following the passage of the 18th Amendment which attempted to prevent the public consumption of alcohol. This fountain bears a verbose inscription in which the WCTU dedicates
the fountain to their “friends in memory of the Crusaders of Hillsboro, Ohio” as
well as honors Frances E. Willard, long-time leader of the WCTU.
The Temperance Movement eventually succeeded at outlawing
the sale of alcohol when the Eighteenth
Amendment was passed in 1919; but the Amendment was
eventually repealed in 1933, and the political power of this group has steadily
declined ever since. However, drinking fountains remain all across the country
as a testament to the efforts to stop alcoholism.
Unfortunately, the pipes that brought water to this particular fountain became unusable four or five decades ago and have never been replaced. What remains at this site, therefore, is less a fountain than a monument to the activism of women in the 19th and early 20th century who found ways to act politically both before and after government officials recognized their right to vote.