People are strange, sang a man who went on to die in a Parisian bathtub. He was right, though — for example, many of us enjoy throwing perfectly good (well, kinda) coins into elegantly-designed puddles of water. But what compels us to hurl all our loose change into the nearest fountain? How much money really ends up in the bigger ones? And who, if anyone, gets to keep it? Close your eyes and wish for a satisfying answer…
Why do we even throw coins in fountains?
It probably started with wishing wells — water is a source of life and, the thinking went, the water was either put there by gods, or even actually housed gods. So water was basically a medium through which your wish could be granted by the gods for a coin.
There’s another theory (according to Wikipedia, at least, accompanied by the dreaded “citation needed,” so salt shakers at the ready): That people somehow inadvertently discovered the biocidal properties of heavy metals — in other words, the ability of copper and silver to make the water safe to drink. Because after all, fountains started out as purely functional, a way to deliver drinking and bathing water from aqueducts to the town.
But who knows for sure? Whatever it was, it’s led to us throwing money at decorative fountains as we think optimistic thoughts, as if the interaction of a coin and an ostentatious water feature will make our desires manifest in reality.
We’re a bunch of superstitious weirdos, got it. How much money ends up in these things?
Obviously it all depends on the fountain, but the most famous example is Trevi Fountain, in Rome. It’s a popular backdrop for classic movies: Audrey Hepburn got her hair cut next to it in Roman Holiday before laying waste to the Eternal City on a Vespa. In La Dolce Vita, Fellini made the fountain seem (as only Italians can) like the most sexual place on Earth.
While you can’t play grab-ass in it anymore, you can throw coins at it, and may tourists do — it supposedly captures $1.5 million a year! That’s more than $4,000 a day in lobbed coinage.
With Trevi Fountain specifically, you’re supposed to throw with your right hand over your left shoulder, facing away from the fountain. One coin supposedly ensures a return trip to Rome (assuming that’s what you want, and depending on your tolerance for mountains of dog shit); two coins ensures a romance with a Roman resident; and three coins means you’re gonna marry them. Frank Sinatra even sang a song about this elaborate — and suspiciously self-serving — local etiquette.
And where does that money go?
Heart-warming-story alert! All the money collected from Trevi goes toward a supermarket offering free food for the poor in Rome. Much less heartwarming is the story of police arresting four official fountain cleaners a while back who were found to be pocketing the money themselves, including one evil genius nicknamed D’artagnan, who used a magnetic wand. For as ill-gotten as it was, he made about $1,000 a day with just a few minutes of work.
What about fountains that aren’t beloved, ancient landmarks in wildly popular tourist hotspots?
Every fountain is different, but many have the potential to rake in the money. They’re not public fountains per se, but those at the Mall of America in Minnesota collect $24,000 a year, which they give to nonprofits that apply to receive it. Disney World donates the money collected from its fountains to Florida children in foster care, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. In New York City, the money collected in the fountains in Bryant Park go toward the fountain’s own maintenance — it’s like a direct donation to the fountain, basically.
Do people ever just jump in and swoop it up for themselves?
You bet! That’s where most of it ends up, actually. Did you know Kansas City calls itself the City of Fountains? Heidi Markle, media spokeswoman for the city’s Parks Department, tells me there are 200 fountains in the metro area, 48 of which the Parks Department looks after. And how much money do they collect? Literally nothing. “The transients pick them all up,” says Markle.
The story is the same in Chicago, where the Park District doesn’t even bother collecting change from most of them, as kids and homeless people usually get to it first. So while Buckingham Fountain, that massive thing that was immortalized in the Married With Children intro, is drained every year, it only yields a couple hundred dollars.
So basically, homeless people claim most of the money thrown into public fountains?
Yeah, pretty much. So now you can feel good about yourself when you do it — it’s essentially a charitable donation.
Do a lot of people throw coins into fountains, though? Or is it mostly just kids?
A financial services marketing agency released a report about 12 years ago saying that one in five adults (in the U.K., at least) regularly throw coins into fountains, each throwing an average of about 20 cents. That can really add up, whether it’s in a big public fountain, the one at the Rainforest Café near whatever tourist attraction you’re at or that one in front of the Bellagio in Vegas that plays music. (Don’t jump in that one, by the way.)
So if I wanted some extra change, could I put an appealing fountain in my front yard?
According to the friendly salesman at Fountains.com, it’s usually possible, yeah. Just talk to your homeowners association before doing so, he warns, since there are often design and appearance constraints for subdivisions, condo complexes and apartments. Additionally, your city may have codes or laws regarding this. If you’re in a rural area, there’s really nothing stopping you.
How hard is it to install?
Not hard at all! Many fountains are solar powered, or run on 110V electricity, just like what’s in your house. You can hook it up to your plumbing system, says the salesman, or just refill the water yourself.
Has he ever heard of someone putting a fountain in their front yard to collect coins?
“I have not,” he says, diplomatically. But hey, beyond your homeowners association or municipal code, what’s stopping you? You can give people the thrill of wishes granted, and collect a bit of money as well, which you could consider donating to charity. Just watch out for anybody with a magnetic wand taking an interest.