Having made his fortune in dentistry and in San Francisco real estate, Dr. Henry D. Cogswell put his money to use in service of the temperance cause, working to curb alcohol consumption throughout the United States. Cogswell in particular believed that if Americans had easy access to cold drinking water, they wouldn’t drink alcohol. As such, he began to donate public water fountains to any city that would accept one. Cogswell, who was not an artist, designed these "temperance fountains" himself. Washington, DC accepted a fountain through an Act of Congress on July 6, 1882 and erected it in 1884.
The fountain prominently features the words TEMPERANCE, FAITH, HOPE, and CHARITY on a miniature temple. A metal heron perches on top of the structure, next to a flowering seed, and two large bronze fish are tangled together on a cylindrical pedestal, which features an inscription identifying Cogswell as the donor.
Originally, Cogswell’s intention was that a reservoir of ice would cool the water that would then be dispensed through the mouths of the fish so that the people of DC could enjoy free, ice-cold water at any time, in lieu of the alcohol served in the nearby saloons. However, the city quickly lost interest in constantly replenishing the ice in the reservoir, and the water supply was shut off not long after. For many years, after the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, the fountain stood dry in front of the bustling Apex Liquor Store.
In the 1940s, California Senator Sheridan Downey launched a vociferous campaign to have the fountain, which he called a “monstrosity of art” and an “art travesty,” removed. The motion that he introduced to do so in April 1945, however, was ignored due to the much more pressing issue of World War II, and the motion died.
Other Cogswell temperance fountains have been less lucky. A few others still stand in addition to DC’s, but most have been torn down. Notably, one of the fountains Cogswell erected in his hometown of San Francisco, which depicted Cogswell himself proffering a cold glass of water to passers by, was demolished by an angry mob.
DC’s temperance fountain remains a relic of the Victorian era in both its message and in its design.