It’s happened to just about all of us when we travel outside the state.
You’re absolutely parched and ask a friendly looking stranger….”Where’s the bubbler?”
They look at you like you’re speaking Klingon.
Or perhaps an out-of-towner has asked you where they could find the nearest water fountain, and you were momentarily puzzled, picturing a statue of a little boy peeing.
For some strange reason, the thing seemingly every other state in the nation calls a drinking fountain or a water fountain is a bubbler to us.
The explanation for this linguistic phenomenom, which is almost exclusive to the Badger State, actually makes a lot of sense. What’s more peculiar is the fact the we Wisconsinites aren’t the only ones…
The History of the ‘Bubbler’
It’s really quite simple. We call drinking fountains bubblers for the same reason everyone calls tissues Kleenex and inline skates Roller Blades – good branding.
The twist is that – with bubblers - it just happened to be good regional branding.
Back in 1889, a man named Harlan Huckleby designed the very first bubbler. I know, the name Harlan Huckleby sounds made up, but it was 1889 and that’s what names were like.
There were certainly other types of drinking fountains in existence, but Huckleby’s design was unique. It had a spout that shot a little stream of water about an inch in the air so people could slurp it up.
The device was picked up and patented by what was then called Kohler Water Works and today is the plumbing fixture giant Kohler Company of Kohler, Wisconsin. Kohler also gave the new product its name and The Bubbler was born.
The original version was modified after several years to shoot water in an arc instead of straight up. One of the problems with the early bubbler was public health concern. Germs from people’s mouths, bugs and bird doo-doo could fall inside the water supply.
But some of the original Bubbler designs still exist. You can find some near the Wisconsin State Capitol building in Madison. If you like living on the edge – go ahead and take a sip.
People really liked drinking out of these newfangled faucets, and soon copycats emerged. However, those competitors needed to come up with different names because Kohler had trademarked The Bubbler. There was “The Gurgler” and “The Gusher.” But none of those names stuck in the cultural lexicon like The Bubbler did here in Wisconsin. Kohler still makes and markets The Bubbler.
For the past 125 years, we’ve been passing this Wisconsin-based tradition down through the generations. Allowing more and more young people to experience embarrassing moments when they attend college out of state.
Take Heart…We Are Not Alone
That explains why drinking fountains are called bubblers in most of Wisconsin. The real mystery is why a few other locations in the United States – and yes, even on the opposite end of the Earth – share this anomaly of dialect with us.
Those hipsters in Portland, Oregon are also quite familiar with the term. Apparently there is a large collection of so-called Benson Bubblers in the city, which are considered icons.
Go to Boston, Massachusetts or talk to folks in Rhode Island and they may also consider calling thirst-quenching fountains bubblers completely normal.
Although, they’d call them “bubblahs.”
Strangest of all is the fact that most of our friends from Down Under adopted the same term as the rest of us Cheeseheads. Australians will more-often use the phrase “water bubblers.”
Check out this article from ABC in New South Wales in which the reporter compares the quality of bubbler water and bottled water. He thinks more Australians should “Give the water bubbler a go.”
“The humble water bubbler or tap can often be found in main streets, parks and playgrounds.
The water is free, tastes pretty good and you the ratepayer have paid for it to be there, so maybe it’s time to cash in and drink up.”
Don’t be ashamed of what you call it. An entire country, a continent even, can prove the rest of America wrong!
When you say “bubbler,” you should not be considered strange. Take pride in knowing that a unique, perhaps world-changing product, was conceived, designed and masterfully marketed to the masses right here in your home state.
Plus, if you ever visit Australia, you’ll fit right in.
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We’re also willing to bet you’ll love our other “Uniquely Wisconsin” stories:
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