Almost exactly two years ago – we were launching WhooNEW – a website about all the things that make Wisconsin unique.
The very first story that caught on with readers was an article examining the origins of the word “bubbler.” Why did Wisconsinites use the term for drinking fountains? Are there other people in the U.S. or around the world who use the word too?
Our article went viral (well in a regional sort of way), It’s still one of our most popular on a daily basis.
But now…it seems we may have given you some misinformation. It’s time for a closer look.
Not long ago, I noticed that our bubbler story was getting visits from a link on a Huffington Post article about drinking fountains. That’s pretty cool, right? Well…it was…until I discovered another bubbler article from the Sheboygan Press.
Suddenly, I felt as if the very foundation of WhooNEW was being rattled.
- Read WhooNEW’s first Bubbler Article for more
The Sheboygan Press story came out in late October of 2014 – about 18 months after our bubbler article started getting shared all over the place folks call the inter-webs.
Beth Dippel, the executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, wrote a piece explaining that the story WhooNEW has been spreading is nothing more than an “urban myth.” Or to be more accurate when citing Dippel…
“Perhaps not quite an urban myth because it’s neither horrific nor humorous…”
Now Dippel never mentioned WhooNEW by name. But I have to assume that during her research for this article, she came across what we wrote. That’s partly because an internet search for the word “bubbler” typically places our 2013 article right at the top of the results.
Searching for the Truth Surrounding the Bubbler
As you might expect from a good executive director of a historical research center – Dippel…well she did her research.
The most important research (and most damning to WhooNEW’s original story) came from contacting the archivist at Kohler Co.
You see – many have said that the origin of the term bubbler came from the Wisconsin plumbing manufacturer. Quite a few places online (including WhooNEW) also tell the story of how a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckleby created the first bubbler, which Kohler patented and turned into a brand.
WhooNEW and others made the stretch that Wisconsinites and others – like people in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as some residents of Portland and most of Australia – call drinking fountains bubblers in the same way people call tissues Kleenex.
Dippel dug a little deeper than the rest of us, and according to her story…
“…the company has never claimed to having invented the bubbler, nor does it hold the patent. They’ve searched patent records and their own records to no avail. The same goes for the employee, Harlan Hucklebee. There is no record of Harlan working at Kohler Co.”
Well…blow me down! But never could be going a little too far. More on that later…
How Could this Egregious Error Occur?
Good question. Allow us to make a bunch of lame excuses. Ahem!
I will admit that when I wrote our first bubbler origins story, my research consisted of scouring the internet for the bubbler’s back-story. That of course, led me to Wikipedia, which I noted in that article.
Wikipedia’s reputation as a reliable encyclopedia hasn’t always been clean as a whistle. If you were a student during the ’90s – your teachers and professors probably forbid you from using it as a source in those dreaded bibliographies at the end of your papers.
That’s because essentially anyone can edit Wikipedia. However, I will defend the online reference by saying that your Encyclopedia Britannica from 1983 is probably much less accurate than Wikipedia is right now. It is known as an open-source encyclopedia – which is actually pretty cool.
It is constantly updated by well-meaning people who believe in the democracy of knowledge and information. Still – when it comes to bubblers – it may be how we were first led astray.
That’s where I first discovered the Harlan Huckleby story. At the time, there was actually an entire Wikipedia entry for the Bubbler. Since then, that entry has been redirected and consolidated into the larger Wiki article on Drinking Fountains.
Mentions of Harlan Huckleby as the inventor have been removed. Yet the crediting of Kohler Co. and consequently Kohler Water Works (a company Dippel says likely never existed) remain. While there is a note that a “citation is needed,” one of the most highly visited sites on the internet still claims Kohler Co. helped popularize drinking fountains in America, and is responsible for the term “bubbler.”
Another reputable source that we found connecting Kohler Co. and the bubbler is the Wisconsin Englishes Project (WEP).
This group, made up of linguists and scholars, is dedicated to exploring the Wisconsin dialect and regional quirks that make up what you might call “Sconnie-speak.”
WEP has a special section in which it lists a sample of “Wisconsin dialect words.”
Item numero uno on that list is none other than “bubbler.” And yes – WEP also credits Kohler Co. with coining the term. However, the group also seems to have its dates more in-line with what Dippel’s research indicates would be a historically accurate timeline for drinking fountains.
WEP even links to a Kohler advertisement, which displays an early porcelain drinking fountain that shoots water straight up in the air – rather than in arc.
The ad calls the fixture a “drinking fountain,” but it also uses the word “bubbler” within the ad’s copy.
Another Possible Reason Why We Call it a Bubbler
If Kohler Co.’s archivist is going to deny its connection to the bubbler, that person might want to notify the social media department.
We came across a 2010 Kohler Co. Facebook post in which the company links to the now non-existent Wikipedia article – proudly proclaiming it “introduced the first bubbler,” and goes on to call it a “trademarked name.”
So I guess we weren’t the only ones who were confused.
But here’s what’s really interesting…
Look at the comment we’ve highlighted in the picture to the left.
It comes from a man who calls himself a plumber. Barry Evans says…
“Well the drinking fountain has a bubbler on it. I am a plumber and we call the Bubbler the part the water comes out.”
Wait, what? So he’s saying the bubbler is just the part of a driking fountain that shoots the water out.
If this is true, why haven’t more plumbers come forward to explain this fact? You’d think more of them would have chimed in at some point.
Our bubbler article has been shared on Facebook more than 10-thousand times (our counter stops at 10k so maybe a lot more). It has been viewed hundreds-of-thousands of times and has received more than 200 comments from our readers. Apparently – none of those folks are plumbers.
When I looked into it a little more, I found plenty of evidence that the word “bubbler” is indeed a piece of a drinking fountain – specifically the piece we drink water from.
In fact, bubbler doesn’t seem to be an uncommon word in the world of plumbing supplies at all.
Of course, we noted in our first bubbler article that Kohler still sells bubblers. But you’ll notice if you click the link that it’s not the entire fixture – just what would amount to the fountain’s valve and spigot.
The thing is…Kohler isn’t the only manufacturer selling these things.
Pictured to the left is a bubbler from Chicago Faucet Shoppe. You’ll notice it’s just the actual faucet, not the entire drinking fountain.
The term bubbler may never have been trademarked, but Oasis Plumbing has trademarked its Dial-a-Drink adjustable bubbler head.
So perhaps, this entire time, many Wisconsinites, New Englanders and Australians have just been calling the entire drinking fountain by its most-memorable feature.
It feels like a bit of a letdown doesn’t it?
The Final Word on Fountains. The Bottom Line on Bubblers.
The tale of a plucky inventor from Wisconsin named Harlan Huckleby who dreamed up a better way to drink water in public places is fun and interesting. It’s also probably not true.
The idea that a Wisconsin company came up with a great marketing move that somehow found its way to Australia would be pretty cool. But that seems unlikely too.
Then again…you never really know. Those stories have to come from somewhere.
Historian, Beth Dippel, also noted that drinking fountains were “fitted with brass valves described as continuous flow bubblers or bubbling valves. However, Kohler did not manufacture these brass pieces themselves until 1926.”
But even she seems unsatisfied with this boring story. Much of Dippel’s article focuses on the possibility that the term came from water coolers found in one-room schoolhouses.
They made big air bubbles when water came out – just like the modern-day plastic water coolers in offices.
While that could be a possibility, the story doesn’t really explain the Wisconsin connection.
It actually really bugged me for awhile that WhooNEW had written a story perpetuating a myth rather than facts. I considered taking the article down, or completely changing it.
But I think I’ll leave it alone…
It’s not like I’m an investigative journalist looking into NSA wiretapping or vaccines or Scott Walkers’ presidential campaign. And this certainly isn’t the first time history has become a bit warped.
Some of our most beloved stories aren’t 100% true…
George Washington never cut down his father’s cherry tree. Betsy Ross wasn’t the first person to sew an American flag, and she probably didn’t design it either.
Charles Lindbergh wasn’t the first person to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. Thomas Edison wasn’t the first person to make an electric lightbulb – he just made one that worked better.
So I don’t think I need to worry about WhooNEW dealing with a Bubblergate scandal anytime soon.
I think I’ll leave our original article out there. If you think that’s a bad idea – let us know in the comments below.
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