The official soundtrack of this review is “Matteru” by Lullatone, also the opening song of this episode. Go click play before you start reading.
What I like about 99% Invisible (a phrase that I now realize might introduce every one of my reviews, with a different predicate each time) is that it feels cool, but in a way that’s accessible. A sort of cool that, you know, is within my own personal, radio-nerd reach. Listening to this episode felt like the day in my sophomore year of high school when I showed up for lunch to find the cafeteria half empty: anyone who played a sport was on a field-trip to the all-county awards banquet. That meant, all the people left in the room—they were my people. The art kids, the theater kids, the kids who spent so much time online that they now have skills that will enable them retire by thirty. These were the Magic players, the Plath lovers, and the future podcast listeners. 1 The people who might be interested in hearing about the history of the public drinking fountain. And for that twenty-three minute lunch period, we were “kings among men” for the very first time. 2 99% Invisible lets me feel that way every week.
The first modern public drinking fountain, as it turns out, was in London. It opened on the 21st of April, 1859 to throngs of excited onlookers. It was an event, and people came from all over. It’s not just that the public loved plumbing infrastructure. The excitement was due in part to the prospect of no longer needing to drink from the Thames—a river so polluted with sewage that the stench once caused the evacuation of Parliament—and cholera-infected wells. In London, these fountains were substantially financed by—and this is its real name—the Metropolitan Free Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association (apparently, putrid water was a problem for livestock as well).
There was also a temperance tie-in; in the 1800s people drank a lot of alcohol, because it tended to be less putrid than water. As you might expect, this practice led to a high-incidence of alcoholism. Public fountains spread quickly across London, across England, and soon, across the United States, in hopes providing boozehounds with a healthier drinking option.
A couple thoughts about the production and feel: Audiologue has been sleeping on Katie Mingle’s production and I feel bad about it. And I don’t know if it was because the team was tired from the Radiotopia Forever pledge campaign (I know Roman was recording from a New York hotel; he says as much in the opening tag), but they sounded sort of… delirious as they narrated. But like, not delirious in a bad way, more like it’s sleepover-with-your-two-best-friends-and-you-ate-too-many-sour-patch-kids-and-now-it’s-5:17am-and-why-is-everything-so-damn-funny delirious. You know what I’m talking about, good delirious. (This led to a great, indulgent Jon Snow joke.) Or maybe it’s just me who is delirious.
The episode also dipped into the history of segregation and the water fountain, and some of the more modern public health vs. capitalism implications, which felt off-kilter with the rest of the episode—an awkward gear-shift that didn’t stall the car, but made your passenger look quizzically up from his Instagram feed to make sure you weren’t about to crash. Interesting, just incongruous.
The episode closed on the song “Water Fountain” by tUnE-yArDs, and 99% Invisible attached the tUnE-yArDs episode of Song Exploder after the credits. It was a nice treat and embarrassingly my first time listening to that show.
- And I’m not saying that if you played a sport, you couldn’t also be one of these things—just that if you didn’t play a sport, you were definitely one of these things. ^
- Thanks PJ Vogt. ^
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