From the early 19th century until the late 20th century it was home to two of the city's major industries and a mixture of working-class tenement housing, which in part degenerated into some of the worst of the city's slums between the 1930s and the 1960s. Before being elected Prime Minister in 1964 the then Labour Party leader Harold Wilson toured the area and promised major redevelopment under a Labour government, though this did not take place for another generation.
The eastern end of the Union Canal (known as the Lochrin Basin), which originally continued a short distance north-eastwards to Port Hamilton at Lothian Road, now terminates in Fountainbridge. The route of the former Caledonian Railway continues to dominate the area, having been converted into the Western Approach Road after the railway's closure.
It is the area where film star Sir Sean Connery was born and grew up, explaining his choice of name for his production company, Fountainbridge Films. He later shut down the company after a series of disputes with a business partner.
In 1844 George Meikle Kemp, designer of the Scott Monument, drowned in the Union Canal at Fountainbridge on his way home to Morningside on a foggy evening. He died within months of the monument's completion.
In 1856 a wealthy US entrepreneur, Henry Lee Norris, established the North British Rubber Company on the site of the older Castle Silk Mill alongside the Union Canal. The company's Castle Mill premises eventually covered 20 acres of land in the area and employed thousands of workers over five generations in manufacturing a variety of products from galoshes and the first Wellington boots to solid rubber wheels for Thompson steam traction engines (after 1870), pneumatic tyres (after 1890) and hot-water bottles. The company's design for trench boots, which was officially chosen by the War Office during the Great War, led to a lucrative government contract which saw the firm supplying up to 2750 pairs a day, reaching a total of 1.2 million pairs by the end of the war. Similar contracts resulted in the production of 1/4 of a million pairs of gymshoes, 47,000 pairs of heavy snow boots for the French Army, 16,000 tyres and 2.5 million feet of hosepipe. The Second World War brought another boom with the production of millions of civilian gas masks and barrage-balloon fabric. In 1958, the company produced Britain's first traffic cones for the M6 motorway. A gradual take-over by US Rubber Incorporated led to the mill's closure in 1959. A further amalgamation resulted in the forming of Uniroyal which fully relocated the plant to Newbridge outside Edinburgh by 1966.
Another company which established itself in Fountainbridge in 1856 was McEwan's Brewery. The site on the north side of Fountainbridge and Dundee Street was chosen because of its proximity to both the Union Canal and the new line of the Caledonian Railway. Within five years, the firm's annual turnover was £40,000 and it went on to become one of the market leaders in the Scottish brewing industry over the next century. In 1973, as a result of a £13 million pounds investment, a new Fountain Brewery was opened on the south side of Fountainbridge on the former site of the North British Rubber Company's premises.
Most of the brewery's facilities were closed in 2004 and were demolished in 2011 as part of a wider redevelopment and regeneration programme beginning with Edinburgh Quay and the Fountain Park leisure complex which includes a multiplex cinema and tenpin bowling.
In 2012, construction of new student accommodation for Edinburgh Napier University began on the south side of Fountainbridge opposite Fountain Park. Four concrete frame buildings will contain 777 bedrooms in clusters of 6-8 bedrooms, each with a communal kitchen and dining area.