Monday, August 11, 2014

Did you know ... Why do we Throw Coins Into Fountains ?

Summer means holidays. All of you, at least once, have been in artistic cities. Here in Italy we've got plenty. And everytime you encounter a fountain, it's kind of a celebration to throw a coin into it. People have been throwing coins into fountains seemingly as long as there have been coins and fountains. The tradition all started with water, the essential compound for life . While many people in the developed world today have clean, drinkable water readily available, I'm now talking about the time when this was not always possible . Potable drinking holes in many regions weren’t the easiest things to find. Thus, where clean water was available, many early European tribes believed that such areas were a gift from the gods.

The idea that drinkable water was sent from Heaven remained even as wells and fountains were built. Often, a small statue of a god could be found next to early wells and fountains, turning them into a type of shrine. As you probably already know, presenting gifts to gods is an ancient practice that was usually meant to appease angry gods, or to act as a payment for a request or prayer. In the case of fountains and wells, people would toss in a coin while sending up a prayer. It can be considered as an early version of making a wish.

One rather prolific well can be found in Northumberland, England, and was used to pray the Celtic goddess of wells and springs, Coventina (photo above). At least 16,000 coins from different eras of the Roman Empire were found there.  Interestingly, most of the coins found in the Coventina Fountain were low denominations, much like today where people are usually more willing to part with a 5 or 10 cent coin rather than a full dollar, euro, or pound.

But not always coins were actually thrown. The St Mary's Well of Penrhys in Wales (on the right) called for pieces of clothing to be tossed in. In this case, it was thought that the water had healing powers and that the clothing carried disease, so by trowing any piece of the clothes into it (buttons, pins, fabric), you would be healed. The belief in the healing powers of the Well of Penrhys was very popular in the 18th century.

These days, believing in gods watching over the fountains or the thought that water has healing powers has largely lost believers, but people still practice this ancient tradition. But in modern times, the prayers have been replaced usually with making wishes.

Probably one of the most famous examples of a wishing fountain is the Trevi Fountain in Rome (the fountain gets its name from being the meeting place of three different roads--- Tre vie = Three Roads). The Trevi Fountain was built as the ending point of a 21 kilometer long aqueduct called Virgo, named for the goddess who would guide soldiers to water when they were thirsty and tired. Originally, throwing a coin in or taking a drink from the fountain was supposed to ensure good health. But given the number of microbe-ridden coins thrown in the fountains, perhaps it would be best not to drink from it. Eventually, the tradition evolved to what we know today: if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you will one day return to Rome. I threw one three years ago, and I haven't returned so far. This idea was popularized in the 1954 film Three Coins in the Fountain, which also suggested that if you throw two coins in, you’ll fall in love with a Roman, and if you throw three coins in, you’ll marry him or her (idea also performed by the wonderful voice of Frank Sinatra). Since the movie, this practice has become so popular with tourists that it’s estimated that around €3,000 in coins are thrown in the fountain every day.

Obviously, all of those coins can’t just sit in the fountain forever. Romans are all but stupid people... The Trevi Fountain shuts down for one hour every day and the coins are swept out by the Roman Catholic charity, which pays for food for the poor. The coins have to be cleaned, sorted into different denominations, and sent off to the bank.

But those who understands something about hydraulic affairs certainly know throwing coins into fountains isn’t always good. In fact, all of those coins contaminates drinkable water sources. Coins can also clog up fountain mechanisms, causing it to break down. Because of these issues, in some places fountains and wells have signs up asking people not to toss coins in. The tradition is so ingrained, however, that people often don’t care.


  1. too neat! i wondered about wishing wells, now i know!

  2. wow this was so cool! I had never actually thought about the meaning of them!


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