Though others love their rum and wine,
And drink till they are mad,
To cold water will we incline,
To make us strong and glad.
These verses, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, come from 19th Century temperance hymns written and performed as propaganda during the great hundred-year battle to ban alcohol from public life. Songs, poems, novels, and illustrations – the “Cold Water Army” of prohibitionists employed them all to tell vivid and often pathetic stories about the ills caused by demon rum.
It seems a tad quaint today, but, in reality, temperance (aka prohibition) was a divisive political and social issue in this country, complicated by a bewildering number of motives ranging from religious fervor to progressive reform to anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s a fascinating and mostly forgotten story that is way too long for this column. We are fortunate, however, to have a piece of that history here in Rehoboth.
Just last month the National Register of Historic Places officially added the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Fountain to its rolls. Governor Jack Markell hosted the dedication ceremony on the Boardwalk. The driver behind the fountain’s nomination was Evelyn Thoroughgood, a Rehoboth native and historian and, I’m proud to say, a reader of this column.
You’ve probably walked passed the historic fountain dozens of times and not realized it.
Located on the Boardwalk at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue, the six foot tall, three foot wide, granite water fountain was erected in 1929 by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Delaware branch of the organization and to encourage people to quench their thirst with water, not booze. It’s the only surviving property in Delaware associated with the WTCU, the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian women’s organization in continuous existence in the world.
Temperance has a long tradition in Delaware. Colonial laws began regulating inns and taverns in 1740. Temperance newspapers and societies sprouted in the early 1800s. In 1855, the state actually passed a short-lived act providing heavy penalties for selling liquor except for mechanical, chemical, sacramental, or medicinal purposes. It was replaced with a less radical license law in 1857.
Delaware’s teetotalers, however, persevered, and even before national prohibition much of the state was dry. Sussex County adopted its own prohibition in 1907. In 1918, Delaware became the ninth state to ratify the 18th Amendment for Prohibition.
Not everyone approved. Some public officials refused to enforce the law. Many du Pont family members pumped money into the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Bootleggers operated off Cape Henlopen. In 1933, Delaware joined the growing anti-temperance movement and voted to repeal prohibition in 1933. Seventy years later, the state scrapped its Sunday blue law.
Rehoboth’s temperance fountain, according to the Natural Register, remains mostly unchanged since its dedication eighty years ago. A spigot has been replaced. A concrete step was placed alongside it so children could reach the fountain. It still functions.
I’ve learned that there are about sixty such WCTU drinking fountains across the U.S. and others in Australia, Canada, and England. At its founding in 1874, the WCTU encouraged its members to provide drinking fountains so that “men could get a cold drink of water without entering saloons and staying for stronger drinks,” so says the organization’s website.
Women weren’t the only ones erecting water fountains. A wealthy temperance activist and dentist in San Francisco named Dr. Henry Cogswell donated fifteen fountains to towns and cities at the turn of the century. His fountains, though, were more like monuments and were adorned with frogs, pigeons, sea serpents, horses, and gargoyles. A few even sported statues of Cogswell himself, in whiskers and frock coat, with a water glass in hand.
Not everyone liked Cogswell’s fountains, but not for the obvious reasons. In San Francisco, an angry mob wrapped a rope around the neck of Cogswell’s statue and pulled it to the ground. For arts sake, they said. A fountain in Connecticut was tossed into a lake.
The Cogswell fountain in Washington, DC, at 7th Street and Indiana Avenue NW was almost torn down in 1945 because a California senator was so appalled by its gaudiness – a crane atop a canopy supported by four stone columns inside of which are intertwined dolphins that look to me to be copulating. During Prohibition, cold water flowed from the dolphins’ snouts.
The Rehoboth fountain is very modest by comparison. But then Delaware has always tended to moderation on most issues. Perhaps that’s why the fountain and the state are so often overlooked?
I know you’re thinking that a temperance fountain in today’s Rehoboth is somewhat ironic. But my hope is that you’ll look at the fountain not just as an enduring memorial to a failed social experiment and a reminder to drink in moderation, but a symbol of the importance of preserving the character of old Rehoboth.
So take a cool drink from the fountain and stumble on over to Baltimore Avenue to your saloon of choice. Hoist a cocktail and give a toast to history.