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Who owns the money thrown into public fountains?

We’ve all done it – every single one of us went on holiday as a child and threw some change into a fountain, hoping all of our wishes come true. Some of us may have even been tempted to grab some of that change and keep it, thinking ‘Well, what good is it in the fountain?’ – although, please don’t do that, it’s illegal. However, the reality is that the money thrown into these wishing wells has to go somewhere, so who do the pennies that lie at the bottom of the fountain actually belong to?

It is believed that people would offer their money as a sacrifice to the gods, in order to ask them for clean water – thus throwing their coins into what became ‘wishing wells’

The tradition of throwing your precious pennies away into fountains can be traced back to Norse mythology. People would sacrifice their valuable possessions, like money, to Mimir’s Well (also known as the Well of Wisdom) and receive infinite wisdom in return. Elsewhere, it is believed that people would offer their money as a sacrifice to the gods, in order to ask them for clean water – thus throwing their coins into what became ‘wishing wells’. This later developed into people using these wishing wells to ask for good health, a successful harvest, or luck and better fortune – much like we use them today. But, be it pennies, cents, nickels, or dimes, all the change at the bottom of a fountain has to be removed in order to allow the fountain to continue to work properly.

It may not seem like much when you look at the collection of currencies, but small fortunes are left in fountains every single day. It is estimated that over £3000 are left in Rome’s Trevi fountain each day, which adds up to around £1.3 million a year – making it the most profitable fountain in the world. That’s almost a third of the £3.5 million left in fountains around the world, and so it’s no surprise that people should be curious about what happens to all that money. Traditionally, the Trevi coins would be given to the Roman Catholic Church whose charities would then distribute the money to tackle poverty and fund projects across Rome.

Rome’s city council plans to use the money from Trevi fountain for the maintenance of cultural sites and rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure

Recently, Rome’s mayor, Virginia Raggi claimed that the money from the world’s most famous fountain belongs to her administration. Rome’s city council plans to use the money from Trevi fountain for the maintenance of cultural sites and rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure, and to fund welfare projects across the city. In response to this announcement, the Church launched an attack on the council, describing the city’s bureaucracy as “the enemy of the poor,” in an article headlined “Money taken from the poor.” Raggi then performed an abrupt U-turn, saying that the money will continue to go to Caritas, the Church’s charity that helps the poor and homeless.

What about the rest of the world though? In Las Vegas’ iconic fountain outside Bellagio Hotel, only $12,000 is collected from the water each year – you’d think more people would wish for luck when in Vegas. Be it as it may, the authorities fish out the coins using a giant hoover and distribute the money to organisations like Habitat for Humanity International, and Simon Youth Foundation. Similarly, the coins retrieved from fountains at Disney World are also donated to charities that help children in foster care.

The coins retrieved from fountains at Disney World are […] donated to charities that help children in foster care

In most cases in the USA, money retrieved from privately-owned fountains is donated to charity. Uniquely, the fountain in New York City’s Bryan Park is owned and operated by a non-profit organisation – which uses the coins collected from the park’s tourist hotspot fountain for its own upkeep. It’s also the case that the change left in the fountain is only really noticeable following the influx of tourists around Christmas spending the festive period in the Big Apple. Evanston Crichton, who has been the fountain’s cleaner since 1991, said: “From January to October, you can’t even get a bucket-full.”

Closer to home, the UK’s fountains don’t tend to have that large an income, despite the 39.2 million overseas tourists that visited us in 2017 alone. Whatever is collected from the fountains during cleaning is also donated to local charities, much like everywhere else in the world. It seems, therefore, that whether or not your wishes come true, your spare pennies do make a change to someone, somewhere. Although, as we become more and more cash-free with contactless cards, and use phones to pay for goods, will we soon see the end of wishing wells?

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