The History of the Drinking Fountain — and How Covid-19 May Change Its Future

During a pandemic, drinking fountains now face a new challenge

The drinking fountain is full of rich, troubling history — from a single cup design in the 1800s to segregated spigots during the Jim Crow era. The fountain has played an essential role in millions of people's lives worldwide, providing access to a fundamental human right. But now, as we face a world where COVID-19 remains a prevalent danger, will the communal water fountain still have a place in society, or become a relic of times gone by?


A man drinks from a common cup at a water fountain in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the early 20th century. (Photo by Kraemer's/Cincinnati Museum Center/Getty Images)

One of the earliest drinking fountain designs included a common cup — a single cup that was used by thousands in a community. There was a quick re-design once the spread of community diseases was linked back to the fountain.

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Two students stand at a drinking fountain in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based high school, in 1950. (Photo by Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images)

After a few re-designs, the arched stream was discovered. The arch was able to keep people from touching the spout directly with their mouths.


The bottled water industry sparked a slow decline in the need and want for drinking fountains. Strong ad campaigns would push people into buying what was once free. Over time, many fountains became neglected.


A family refills a water bottle at a California hydration station.

A push back against non-reusable plastic bottles would create a new type of fountain — the refillable hydration station. This fountain allows people to fill up their reusable water bottles easily at no cost. This movement also allowed cities around the country to rebuild trust and ensure easy access to fresh, clean water.


Signs are seen taped to drinking fountains shut off due to Covid-19. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Now there is a new type of fountain on the horizon. A drinking fountain with self-cleaning technology to help fight against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.