Stupid Question ™
Aug. 2, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What happens to all the coins people throw into fountains and pools in malls and other public places?
A: The amount of coinage tossed into public fountains is mind-boggling. Any good-sized mall fountain collects thousands of dollars a year.
It appears that the owners of all such big-money fountains donate the coins to charity.
I surveyed five public pools and fountains in Boston and found coins (mostly pennies, but up to quarters) in all of them. The haul ranged from about 40 cents in a fountain in the Boston Common park to about $50 (1,500 coins) in the fancy downtown Copley Place mall.
The mall told me its fountain produces a whopping $4,000 to $6,000 a year, which is donated to the playground initiative of a local school. Similarly, Columbus, Ohio’s City Center Mall donates its coins to the Ronald McDonald House charities via Children’s Hospital. (A spokesperson didn’t know exactly how much money is collected during the weekly fountain-cleaning.)
A waterfall and pool in the Westin Hotel in downtown Boston contained about $45 during my visit. According to hotel spokesperson Steve Pellegrino, the pool is drained monthly and produces “a couple thousands of dollars each year.” He calls them “pennies from heaven,” since people like to toss coins from an escalator that runs high above the waterfall.
The proceeds have been donated to various charities that have solicited the hotel for donations; they’ve included the American Liver Foundation, the Anti-Defamation League, Catholic charities and the education fund of the Professional Certified Meeting Association.
Indeed, soliciting fountain owners is a great fund-raising technique. Washington, D.C. fund-raising wunderkind Danny Seo once raised $30,000 in 30 days, in part by soliciting fountain owners.
A reflecting pool at Kentucky’s capitol building also produces a couple thousand dollars a year, which is donated to the state’s child care agencies.
Boston’s Christian Science Center has a more laid-back way of donating coins tossed into its 670-foot-long reflecting pool; when the pool is drained in the fall, homeless people are allowed to enter it and gather the coins. This fall, they’ll collect at least seven bucks, which is how much I counted around the pool’s inside edge.
However, not all fountain coins end up as donations. It appears that when the haul is small, somebody along the line simply pockets the money. Kids often fish coins out of public fountains. In New Jersey in 1997, a library janitor got fire for draining a reflecting pool to steal coins, and he probably wasn’t the first of his kind.
There are also a few fountains that don’t want your coins. Oxidizing pennies can poison fish, while sun-heated coins can burn plants.
And coins can ruin a pool’s intended mood or aesthetic. That’s why the feds are trying to stop people from tossing them into the reflecting pools at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Robert F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.