Whether it’s a public square, mall, or a park you’ve definitely seen a fountain before. Relaxing with the breeze and cooling fountain mist. It’s great if you’re into that kind of relaxing, outdoor vibe. Then you look over the edge and into the basin and see a treasure trove of loose change. Maybe when you were a kid you threw a couple coins into a fountain–and maybe you still do. Not like we would know. But what’s up with the tradition? Why do we throw coins into fountains?
Hopefully you’re vaguely familiar with water wells, even if you don’t rely on one for your water supply. But uh, the gist is they’re used to extract groundwater. They’ve been around for a long time, and date back to even the Neolithic period (as far back as 7,000-8,000 years ago).
While wells were not localized to just the Germanic, Celtic, and Nordic peoples, some of the more prominent records of coins-in-wells. Which brings us to wishing wells–which is probably a phrase you picked up in some distant memory that you can’t accurately pin down. It just kind of… lives in the back of your mind.
Anyway water is super important to life, and you couldn’t go for more than just a few days without it. With clean water difficult to access for many now, you can imagine how powerful a functional well would have been 8,000 years ago. It came to be that wells were often divine fonts, providing drinking water a divine gift of the gods. Germanic and Celtic peoples believed water was healing and guarded (or otherwise lived in) by spirits. Such well denizens and guardians were said to actually grant wishes if they were said by (or to) a well–but only at a price. So after wishing, people would drop coins into wells.
It probably also helped that coins are often made of copper or silver–which tend to kill bacteria. Throwing copper and silver coins would have served as a nice, primitive way to sanitize water. It’s also quite easy to make the connection that “oh we threw coins into the well and people stopped getting sick from the water.” That association is going to promote people throwing more coins into wells.
Heard of Mimir? Well he’s one of the figures in Norse myths with lots of knowledge and wisdom–something Odin didn’t really like. When the Norse gods went to war, Mimir was beheaded. Afterwards Odin carried his head around and made Mimir pass along knowledge. Because Odin is a deeply strange, and petty god.
So Mimir’s Well was also known as the Well of Wisdom–said to grant infinite wisdom to those who sacrificed something very, very dear to them. Odin is said to have given his right eye in a bid to see the future and a complete understanding of existence and meaning.
That’s a lot more expensive than the quarter of change your local barista gave you.
How Much Money Do Fountains Make?
Well… Depends on the fountain. The Trevi fountain in Rome makes a lot, and it collected upwards $1.5 million in 2016. The change is passed along to charity (mostly feeding the poor), which is why coin-fishing is illegal. Sometimes they find dentures, glasses, and other miscellaneous things–we’re pretty sure those don’t figure into the $1.5 million value.
Fountains in Disney World collect about $18,000 yearly, and Las Vegas’ Bellagio fountain brings in about $12,000.
Chicago’s Buckingham fountain only brings in like $200 per year though.
Pick out some coins here. They’ve probably been in a fountain before.