Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The modest appearance of a squat granite fountain hunkered along the curb on the south side of Philadelphia’s Washington Square belies its noble history. The fountain, which began in a much grander form on the opposite side of the square in 1869, was the first project of a sweeping movement that would adorn the city’s streets and quench the thirst of its residents, both man and beast. It was the first of dozens erected to serve Philadelphia in the second half of the nineteenth century.

By 1869, Washington Square, one of the original five squares laid out by William Penn and a burial place for African Americans and the indigent during the eighteenth century, had become a fashionable address for affluent residents. Handsome residences bordered three sides of the tree-shaded park, some with ornamental ironwork and gravel walks where children played, attended by maids and governesses. Lawyers’ offices lined Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Architect John Notman’s 1847 Italian Renaissance-style building housing The Athenaeum of Philadelphia on Sixth Street and the 1822 First Presbyterian Church on Locust Street, modeled on a Greek temple by John Haviland, were the square’s focal points. Presaging the square’s next incarnation as a business hub, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS), the first savings bank in the United States, had just completed its granite Italianate-style headquarters at the southwest corner of Walnut and Seventh Streets on Washington Square. Its architect was Addison Hutton (1834–1916) who designed additions in 1885–1886 and 1888.

Public discussion at the time swirled around plans for a new city hall, as government offices had outgrown their quarters in the former State House in Independence Square, located just northeast of Washington Square. The city sought to accommodate its burgeoning bureaucracy with an ordinance calling for the replacement of all existing Independence Square structures with city office buildings. Dissenting residents managed to stymie the plan, saving Independence Square’s historic buildings, but their action placed the future of Washington Square in the balance. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania interceded and decreed that Philadelphia’s voters should decide by referendum whether a new city hall should be built in adjacent Washington Square or in Penn Square — founder William Penn’s original Center Square — several blocks northwest. In the 1870 referendum, the Penn Square site triumphed by a substantial margin; Washington Square remained open and, as one writer noted, “sank back into obscurity, a quiet place of light and shadow and high-arched trees.”

The nation’s second largest city had grown rapidly by 1869, adding more than one hundred thousand residents in the previous decade to reach a population approaching seven hundred thousand. Aside from walking, transportation in the city depended largely on horse power. One estimate places the number of horses at one for every twenty residents in large United States cities during the nineteenth century. For Philadelphia in 1869, horses would number approximately thirty-five thousand. They hauled delivery wagons, carriages, and streetcars through the city’s narrow streets. The city’s first horse-drawn streetcars began service in 1858 and, by the end of the following decade, streetcar tracks lined the major thoroughfares. Horses bore the brunt of extreme weather and the abuse of impatient drivers. The summer heat could be especially harrowing, since watering stations were all but nonexistent. As many as twenty draft horses died daily in Philadelphia from heat exhaustion during the warmest months.

In February 1869, Dr. Wilson Cary Swann (1806–1876) convened a group of individuals at his home at 1512 Walnut Street to “consider the propriety of forming a society for the erection of fountains” along the city’s streets. Swann proved to be a persuasive advocate. The group unanimously agreed to organize the Philadelphia Fountain Society to erect and maintain drinking fountains in the city. The fountains were to be practical, rather than merely decorative contrivances. Their primary purpose was to satisfy physical needs rather than aesthetic sensibilities.

Swann was a patron of the arts and a social reformer, with a private fortune that permitted him to pursue his interests. He was a member of a prominent Alexandria, Virginia, family. His father, Thomas, served as United States attorney for the District of Columbia under Presidents James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson. His brother, Thomas, served as mayor of Baltimore, governor of Maryland, and a member of Congress. Swann graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1830 and returned in 1847 to live in Philadelphia after marrying Maria Elizabeth Bell, a local resident.

Few public sources of drinking water for humans or animals existed in mid-nineteenth-century Philadelphia. By making free fresh water amply available, Swann hoped to promote temperance and relieve animal suffering. He explained that these goals were intertwined. “The greatest enemy to temperance, morality and virtue, is more or less associated with thirst. Many a good man, from necessity, is often driven to gin shops and places of debauch, where water is provided to his suffering beast, and he in return is expected to go in and spend his hard-earned wages at the bar.” Thirsty pedestrians as well might be expected to choose a draught of water rather than a saloon keeper’s offering.

Swann’s antipathy toward strong drink mirrored that of an organization that may have served as the model for the Philadelphia Fountain Society, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association of London. Established ten years earlier, in 1859, the association sought “the amelioration of animal suffering and the promotion of habits of temperance amongst our itinerant and working population” by installing fountains and troughs in the metropolitan area. The association cited a publican’s posting as evidence of the connection between intemperance and the teamsters’ trade:

“All that water their horses here
Must pay a penny or have some beer.”

In a statement published by the city’s major newspapers shortly after its organization, the Philadelphia Fountain Society appealed to readers for their “sympathy and support.” The society deemed itself “worthy of especial consideration and encouragement” as “a source of health and benefits to the community at large.” It pledged to erect and maintain drinking fountains “for the personal advantage of all, including a numerous class of highly useful men, as well as for the relief of the animals employed by them in transportation incident to a large and growing city.”

Members of the Fountain Society paid annual dues of five dollars, and contributors of $150 were entitled to life membership and the inscription of their names on a fountain. Society members elected Swann as president and appointed a board of managers and “lady managers.” They also appointed a committee on fountains that set expeditiously to its task. The committee selected a site on Washington Square along Walnut Street opposite Seventh Street for the society’s first installation. By April 1869, barely three months after the society’s founding, it erected its first fountain. During the same month, the committee reported that work on a second fountain, located on Chestnut Street facing Independence Hall, was nearing completion.

The Fountain Society’s rapid early progress was greatly aided by donations. The fountain erected at Independence Hall in 1869, on Chestnut Street west of Fifth Street, was made possible by a Mrs. F. Tyler. Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker provided funding the same year for another Independence Hall fountain erected by the society on Chestnut Street, east of Sixth Street.

Although details about the committee’s decision to place the society’s first fountain on Washington Square are unknown, a stereopticon photograph depicts the fountain shortly after its erection. The granite block construction now situated on the south side of the square formed the base of the fountain. It provided receptacles of water for use by humans, horses, and dogs. Facing the sidewalk, water trickled from the mouth of a carved lion’s head into a semi-circular basin where it could be dipped for drinking by passersby.

Water for the drinking fountain flowed from the city’s water system. A clever recycling scheme employed gravity to channel the excess to the two troughs on the street side of the fountain. A pipe was inserted into a hole bored through the granite to direct the overflow from the drinking fountain into a rectangular horse watering trough. It was believed important to keep water in the horse trough circulating to reduce the possibility of transmitting glanders (a contagious and debilitating bacterial disease) or other communicable diseases among animals drinking from the trough. A notch in the granite at its outer edge directed the overflow from the horse trough into a smaller trough at curb-level, most likely for use by dogs.

A passage taken from the Old Testament carved on the fountain’s granite face above the horse trough proclaimed the Fountain Society’s mission. Now scarcely visible, the inscription reads: “Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad, and rivers of waters in the streets.” The most prominent parts of the original fountain are missing today. A white marble tablet mounted atop the fountain’s base bore the inscription “Philadelphia Fountain Society, Instituted AD 1869.” A marble hemisphere on top of the tablet served as the perch for a large cast iron eagle with outstretched wings. The society purchased the eagle from the prominent Philadelphia firm of Robert Wood & Co. for one hundred dollars. The firm had offered to provide two eagles for a special price of $175, but the committee purchased only one. The society paid $242.75 to Borders Walsh & Co. for the fountain’s stone work, and $70 to William H. Radford to install its plumbing.

The city demonstrated its support for the project by paving the street in front of the fountain with about twenty feet of Belgian block at a cost of $120. The fountain, as constructed, stood more than eight feet tall, more than twice the height of the base which remains on South Washington Square.

The society’s addition to Washington Square was recognized in Philadelphia and its Environs: A Guide to the City and Surroundings, published in 1873 by J. B. Lippincott and Company (which constructed its headquarters on the square in 1901). “Outside the railing of this square, on a line with Seventh Street is a stone fountain surmounted by an eagle standing on a globe, which is noteworthy as being the first of these benevolent structures in providing which the Philadelphia Fountain Society has already earned the gratitude of thousands of thirsty men and suffering beasts.”

Not content merely to erect and maintain fountains, the society also monitored their usage. On a single day in July 1869, 1,365 persons and 321 horses were observed drinking from the Walnut at Seventh Street fountain during a twelve-hour period, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Swann reported the results of this count in a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, expressing pride in the society’s progress in the five months since its founding.

There “are now in operation five granite fountains,” Swann wrote, “one on Walnut Street, two in Independence Square on Chestnut Street, one on Arch Street between Front Street and Delaware Avenue, and one on Dock Street below Walnut. . . . Also in hand are two in white marble, one in granite, one in Ohio brown-stone and two in iron, all under contract to be finished by the middle of August, making thus far, in all, eleven.” He noted that the society was “progressing as rapidly as circumstances will allow” in supplying the city with drinking fountains. Swann could not resist extrapolating the findings for the Washington Square fountain to include the other four society fountains in operation at the time. This led him to speculate that 6,825 persons and 1,605 horses had drunk from the five fountains within a twelve-hour period. He declared this volume of usage a “blessing heretofore unknown in Philadelphia” and observed “the wonder is how we have managed to live without them for so long a time.” Swann concluded his missive with an appeal “to the liberality of our citizens to aid us in this noble work.”

The rate of human usage reported by Swann — approximately two persons per minute over the period of twelve hours — suggests thirsty pedestrians queuing along Walnut Street during peak times. The reported rate of equine usage — just over two minutes per horse — seems high as well. A count taken a year later, in August 1870, showed a total of 5,016 persons and 1,089 horses and mules drinking from the society’s six fountains during a twelve-hour period. A survey conducted four years later by the society found the Washington Square fountain being used by more persons but fewer horses than in 1870. Birds were counted for the first time. During a twelve-hour period, the fountain was used by 1,027 persons, 163 horses, one dog, and fourteen sparrows. Another twenty persons were reported to have washed or bathed their heads. Although the population of humans and horses continued to increase between 1869 and 1874, the number of public drinking sources constructed by the Fountain Society and other organizations was also on the rise.

Strong support allowed the Fountain Society to maintain a brisk pace of construction in its early years. Several months after the society’s founding, two hundred annual and seven life memberships had been subscribed, with another four life memberships promised. By the end of 1871, the society had erected forty-four fountains throughout Philadelphia. Another twenty-nine fountains of iron, granite, and marble construction were added over the following three years, bringing the total to seventy-three.

Many fountains were constructed through the generosity of donors, but it became increasingly difficult to raise sufficient funds to maintain them. They were subject to adverse weather, mechanical failure, and vandalism. The society’s early success proved to be a mixed blessing: the more fountains the society constructed, the greater became its financial burden for their maintenance and repair.

Almost from the beginning, fundraising efforts among private contributors had fallen short of anticipation. In the society’s fourth annual report, Swann lamented his “exertions to convince the commercial, manufacturing and benevolent people of Philadelphia of the importance of erecting fountains” failed to gain “the encouragement which the subject demanded.” In 1877, the society’s income from memberships amounted to $340, the equivalent of nearly $8,000 today. By 1880, it had increased only to $450. The society believed individuals who wished to fund the construction of new fountains hesitated to do so for fear that they would not be preserved and sustained.

Support from members of the temperance movement also failed to meet Swann’s expectations. “We cannot . . . refrain from expressing our regret and surprise that the temperance lodges, numbering over one hundred in this city, should not, with [one] exception . . . have participated nor even sympathized with us in our efforts to provide water for the laboring classes in our streets,” he said. “No better auxiliary to the benevolent objects of these organizations could have been suggested than the Philadelphia Fountain Society.”

The society appealed for public funding, but government support was sporadic. The city allocated one thousand dollars to the society in 1871 for the repair and upkeep of fountains, but the appropriation had been discontinued by 1880. The society petitioned the city to restore the allocation in 1881, explaining that although this amount would be insufficient to meet its needs, additional funding also would be sought. The city responded tepidly by instructing its water department to issue permits for the society’s troughs and fountains without charge.

“Our work is greatly curtailed for the want of means,” Swann explained to the society’s members. He expressed his disappointment that the roster of members had peaked at three hundred, many of whom either “from negligence or inattention fail to meet their annual obligations.” He decried the lack of community support. “We hear in a worldly sense of large sums lavishly bestowed upon political meetings, party organizations, and secular banquets, but we have yet to hear, with few exceptions, of a similar spirit of liberality towards an institution struggling to relieve the faint and weary in our streets, and cheer them on their path of toil and duty.” Swann died two years later in 1876, and is interred in the vault of his wife’s family in the burial ground of Christ Church.

The society’s 1880 annual report, the first issued after Swann’s death, listed sixty-five fountains, down from a high of seventy-three in 1874. Although Washington Square’s fountain was reported to be in good condition in 1880, seven fountains, or about 10 percent, were broken or not functioning.

The introduction of the electric streetcar in 1892, which replaced the city’s horse-drawn cars, did not diminish the need for watering troughs. The number of horses quartered in Philadelphia increased until 1910, when motor trucks began to replace horse-drawn wagons.The proliferation of streetcar lines in the city, appears to have been responsible for the relocation of the fountain at Walnut and Seventh Streets to its present site on the opposite side of Washington Square.

By 1916, Washington Square and the surrounding city had changed significantly since the Fountain Society undertook its first project nearly a half-century earlier. The transition of the area around the square from a prestigious residential neighborhood to the home of some of the nation’s foremost publishing houses was almost complete. These included buildings housing the headquarters of J. B. Lippincott and Company (1901) on Sixth Street, the Farm Journal (1909) and W. B. Saunders Company (1910), both on West Washington Square, and the Curtis Publishing Company (1910), whose massive structure replaced a number of law offices on Walnut Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Construction began in 1913 of the ten-story granite and limestone Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company building at the southeast corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets.

The square’s landscape had undergone a major physical improvement in the early 1880s and another one was underway. The earlier renovation had replaced the park’s iron palisade fence with a nine-inch high granite coping. The pattern of circular walkways gave way to a geometric grid with intersecting walkways. Flagstone walks replaced gravel paths. In 1898, a monument honoring the Washington Grays, a militia unit that distinguished itself in the Civil War, had been moved from its original location at Broad Street and Girard Avenue to the center of the square.

In 1913, the Washington Square Improvement Association was established by Cyrus H. K. Curtis of the publishing company, Charles Francis Jenkins, editor of the Farm Journal, and heads of businesses surrounding the square. Working with city officials, the association contracted with the influential Olmstead Brothers of Boston to redesign the square’s walkways to conform to the pattern of pedestrian traffic evident in the trampled lawns.

The impetus to move Swann’s beloved first fountain from its original location at Seventh and Walnut Streets in 1916 appears to have arisen from a need to narrow the Walnut Street pavement to accommodate the rerouting of the Seventh Street trolley. A team of horses stopped for water at the fountain would block trolleys running on two different lines. The fountain was unceremoniously uprooted from its original site and moved to (then) Locust Street on the opposite side of the square by the Bureau of City Property. The bureau’s annual report for 1916 offers a different perspective on the fountain’s relocation. The report simply states that a contract was let for moving the fountain from the Walnut Street sidewalk to the (then) Locust Street sidewalk, in accordance with plans for improvement of the square. No mention is made of a narrowing of the Walnut Street sidewalk. The bureau also reported contracting for relocation of the Revolutionary Soldiers’ Monument and the Washington Grays Monument for the same reason. Apparently the Bureau of City Property acted without consulting the Fountain Society, whose members learned about the fountain’s relocation after the fact. An inspection conducted by the society president in the spring of 1917 showed the relocated fountain to be in good order, although its water had been turned off. The inspection report further noted that “the figure has been removed.” No information is available to indicate what he meant specifically by the word “figure,” or how, why, or by whom it was removed.

Relocation of the fountain to the less-traveled Locust Street (now South Washington Square) on the southern border of Washington Square may have increased its accessibility to those horse teams which continued to ply the city’s streets. The fountain now faced the First Presbyterian Church across Locust Street. The church remained until 1928 when its congregation left to merge with another. The church building remained vacant for eleven years until it was razed for a parking lot in 1939. The site is now occupied by Hopkinson House, a thirty- one-story condominium building, erected as an apartment building in the early 1960s.

One of the Philadelphia Fountain Society’s last building projects was the construction of the monumental Swann Memorial Fountain in Philadelphia’s Logan Circle in 1924. Designed by architect Wilson Eyre Jr. (1858–1944), the fountain, with its striking sculptures by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870–1945), honors the society’s founder. It was funded by a bequest made by his widow, Maria Elizabeth Bell Swann (1814–1891). In her will, she left the society fifty thousand dollars “in trust to erect in some suitable locality a large and handsome fountain in memory of my beloved husband, they reserving out of this sum a sufficient amount to be invested, and the income applied to the annual expenses of cleaning the fountain and keeping it in perfect order and repair and defraying any extra expense requisite for a constant supply of water.” The bequest was too modest to erect such a memorial, and the society’s directors invested and reinvested the money for a quarter of a century until they began making plans for the erection of the Swann Memorial Fountain. Maintenance of the restored Swann Fountain and the remnants of other Fountain Society works are the responsibility of the City of Philadelphia and the Fairmount Park Commission.

Like many of Philadelphia’s charitable organizations and civic institutions, the society still exists. Today, the Fountain Society provides grants made possible by its investment income. Organizations recently enjoying the society’s largess include the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, and Historic Philadelphia Inc.

In addition to the Washington Square fountain-watering trough, at least two other examples of the society’s work remain in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood. A granite fountain, erected by the society shortly after the Washington Square fountain, is located on Arch Street, west of Third Street, in front of the Friends Meeting House. The Tyler fountain was one of two constructed by the Fountain Society in 1869 and placed in the 500 block of Chestnut Street in front of Independence Hall. It was moved to the Arch Street site in 1942 following the demolition of its sister fountain by what the society’s president termed “a reckless autoist.” A stone urn fixed atop the original fountain has been removed. An example of the Fountain Society’s later work is located on Ninth Street at Clinton, facing Pennsylvania Hospital. Dedicated to Edward Wetherill (1820–1908), a prominent Quaker and abolitionist, it bears an inscription most telling: “A Merciful Man is Merciful to His Beast.”


Allies for the Cause

The Fountain Society had help providing public drinking water for the growing city. The Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA) saw the importance of public watering troughs as part of its campaign to promote humane treatment for animals. The PSPCA predated the Fountain Society by about a year; founder Colonel M. Richards Muckle, manager of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was inspired to act after witnessing the frequent mistreatment of horses from his office window at Third and Chestnut Streets. “There are indications that a very commendable rivalry in the erection of drinking fountains for man and beast will spring up between those two admirable associations, the Philadelphia Fountain Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in August 1869.

Instead, the two organizations worked cooperatively, to no surprise, considering that Swann was a founding member of the PSPCA. The PSPCA reported that it had erected three fountain troughs in 1869, including one at the Merchant’s Exchange at Third and Walnut Streets, one at Fourth Street and Old York Road, and one at Broad and Market Streets “through the liberality of Dr. Swann.” Their 1876 Annual Report, under the heading of “Fountains,” noted, “This humane provision, erected alike for man and beast, continues to claim a portion of our attention, which is shared by the Philadelphia Fountain Society, especially organized for this purpose.” In later years, the PSPCA assumed management of the Philadelphia Fountain Society’s fountains.

A Women’s Branch of the PSPCA was created in 1869 by activist Caroline Earle White, one of the organization’s co-founders, after her male counterparts excluded her from any official position in its hierarchy. The Women’s Branch also commissioned the construction of fountains and horse troughs. In 1899, it broke away from the PSPCA to form the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (WPSPCA). A survey of the humane movement published in 1910 reported that the WPSPCA maintained twenty-two fountains in the city.


For Further Reading

Bach, Penny Balkin. Public Art in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Beers, Diane L. For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.

Dallett, Francis James. An Architectural View of Washington Square. Philadelphia: Athenaeum of Philadelphia, 1964.

McClelland, Jim. Fountains of Philadelphia: A Guide. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2005.

McShane, Clay, and Joel A. Tarr. The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2007.

Weigley, Russell F., ed. Philadelphia: A 300-Year History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1982.


Bill Double, Philadelphia, is a native of Pittsburgh and a graduate of Temple University. After retiring from the staff of the New Jersey Legislature, the author and his wife moved to Philadelphia, where he began volunteering at Independence National Historical Park (INHP). While researching Washington Square for INHP, he became interested in its fountain, which led to researching and writing this feature about the Philadelphia Fountain Society. He is currently working on a book about the square.