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October 11, 2013

Historical Echoes: Throwing Coins into a Fountain—Who Is Getting Paid?

Amy Farber

Do you throw coins into a fountain when you see that others
have done so?  A comprehensive and
thoughtful student
on wishing well use in Southern California has been posted on the
internet by University of California, Irvine, anthropology professor Bill Maurer.
The 2006 project bases its findings on interviews of people throwing coins into
fountains and states that:

Although the exact origins of this
practice are unknown, offering money to water is an old tradition that can be
dated back to Roman-British and Celtic mythology. Since then, the tradition of
making a wish with a coin has been passed down through generations by
socialization, evolving from a religious ritual into a fun, yet superstitious,
cultural practice in Southern California.

Wishing wells or coins in a fountain: who or what is getting
paid? By this question, we don’t mean
who is literally taking the money. The answer to that question will vary by fountain. In Florida, according to a 2010
from the Sun Sentinel, the
funds may be taken by the maintenance company that cleans the fountain, pocketed
by folks bathing in the fountain (assuming they have access to their pockets
while bathing), or donated to charity. The Trevi Fountain in Rome, according to
this blog
“currently receives over €3,000 per day, and the proceeds assist with funding a
market for Rome’s poor.”

But who or what is getting paid from the perspective of the
thrower of the money? Some sort of deity or spirit either associated with the
fountain or temporarily “listening” through the fountain? If so, would this be called a financial
transaction? According to the definition
of “financial transaction” on—an “event which involves
money or payment, such as the act of depositing money into a bank account,
borrowing money from a lender, or buying or selling goods or property,” the
wish would seem to qualify. The fact that payment has taken place does seem to presuppose the existence of a
payee. (Could this be a new version of the famous ontological

If it is a kind of financial transaction, can we assume that
the more given in payment, the better the wish outcome? In the wishing well
piece posted by Maurer, the authors note that in Coventina’s Well in northwestern

most of the coins found . . . were “low
denomination bronze issues . . . . ” People who offered coins to the well chose coins
that were either worth very little or nothing at all. This suggests that the
economic exchange value of the coin is not equal to the value the coin had as a
gift to the divine power.

However, the interviewers did find people who believed that
the higher the coin value, the better the wish-granting “service”&#8212that is, the more
likely their wish will come true.

Any online wishing wells? A simple Google search will find you many. One site
has you use your cursor to “lift” a coin and “drop” it in a well. No site seems
to take real money.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or the Federal Reserve System. Any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author.

Amy Farber is a research librarian in the Federal Reserve
Bank of New York’s Research and Statistics Group.


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Both copper and silver kill germs in water. So throwing coins in a fountain, which was the drinking water source, would bring real protection from illness. They chemically sterilise the water. Those who’s fountains were well decorated with small coins would be luckier, disease free, than any others. Some superstitions are scientifically well founded. Leviticus in the Bible mandated silver containers for all the food in the tabernacle and temple. People knew all this in the Medieval period. Today we know why it worked, copper and silver ions disrupt bacterial membranes and metabolisms. Back then they just trusted that God had a good reason.

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