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The meaning of the Bubbler

May. 6, 2009
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It lies in the puzzled expression of an outsider when asked, "Wheres the nearest Bubbler?" that we know the word is our own. In the United States, there isnt a clear standard term for the device out of which one drinks water in public spaces like schools and parks.

According to "American Dialects," an article written by Bert Vaux for Lets Go USA 2004, the preferred term in the southeastern half of the United States is water fountain, whereas in the northwestern half of the country its drinking fountain. Its only in eastern Wisconsin and eastern Massachusetts that it's called a Bubbler.

Alongside the likes of Jell-O, Dumpsters, Band-Aids and Popsicles, the Bubbler is a trademarked word that has become, at least in the Milwaukee area, a generic term for the product category.

Harlan Huckleby is given credit for designing the Bubbler in 1888, but his employer, Kohler Water Works (currently the Kohler Co.), actually patented the invention and trademarked the name. The original Bubbler was a bowl that incorporated a spherically shaped valve that projected a single stream of water an inch vertically into the air, creating a bubbling appearance.

With free and easy access to fresh water that reduced unsanitary hydrating practices like drinking water out of shared cups and from city water taps, the popularity of Bubblers skyrocketed.

According to the Portland, Ore. Water Bureau, in 1912 lumber baron and teetotaler Simon Benson noticed the smell of beer on his workers breath while walking through his mill. When he asked why they were drinking in the middle of the day, they replied there was no fresh drinking water to be found downtown.

Benson made a historic $10,000 donation to the city of Portland for the purchase and installation of 20 four-bowl bronze drinking fountains now called Benson Bubblers. Yet, the phrase used most predominantly on the West Coast is still water fountain.

So why is the Bubbler such a deeply entrenched term here in eastern Wisconsin? And, of all places, eastern Massachusetts? In theory, perhaps landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted learned of Kohlers Bubbler when he was designing several parks in the Milwaukee County Parks System during the last decade of the 19th century.

Conceivably Olmsted brought the Bubbler back to Massachusetts, where his landscape architecture firm was located and where he was commissioned to design a number of academic campuses and parks.

The Kohler Co. still manufactures and sells its Bubbler, which is now constructed of durable solid brass and features an easy push button and self-closing valve operation. We are loyal to our idiosyncrasies - the Bubbler, frozen custard, butter burgers - because in an increasingly homogenized American culture, they are what make us Milwaukee.


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