Maybe We Were Wrong – A Closer Look at Why We Call it a Bubbler in Wisconsin

bubbler

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.

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?

bubbler-mosaic

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.”

bubbler-vintage-adAnother 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.

Kohler-FB-postWe 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.

748-665CP-2TThe 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.

Here’s a push-button bubbler assembly for sale from Grainger.com. PlumbingSupply.com offers a page full of durable, lead-free Drinking Fountain Bubbler Valves.

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.

it's-a-bubbler-T

Get WhooNEW’s bubbler t-shirt

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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Comments

  1. 'Sconsinite says:

    Keep up the good informative stories…

  2. Thanks for the entertaining story. It made me laugh out loud several times. It was a nice way to end a stressful day.

  3. As a future Wisconsonite I totally love the story. My boyfiend had me totally convinced of the “bubbler” and trying to explain it in Oklahoma….LOL!!! That answered itself! I love the site! Keep up the great work

    • And i totally misspelled that. lol Wisconsinite. Fingers faster than my thoughts 🙂

    • People in Wisconsin don’t like the terms water fountain or drinking fountain, which are considered offensive plumbing terminology to many Wisconsinites. When asking where the water fountain is at various businesses in Wisconsin, here are some of the remarks that were made: A cashier at the Pick N Save said this while bugging her eyes out at me: “I thought we agreed to call it a bubbler.” I never made an agreement there with anyone. Another time in West Bend Library, I told my daughter that I was going to the water fountain to get a drink. A man standing nearby with his 8 year old son said to him out loud, “She’s not going to have any friends here if she calls it a water fountain.” Another women at the West Bend library said after hearing me use the term water fountain, “She’s messing with my German heritage by calling it that.” They also like to laugh in the faces of people who ask where the water fountain is or laugh and make fun as you turn and walk away or they ask you where are you from, and then make a snotty dig about your home state.

      • Jeez not sure what part of WI you were in but those people are rude. Don’t categorize them as ALL of WI though. Not all of us are like that. I for one have NEVER called it a Bubbler. Only drinking fountain. That’s normal for Central WI though. There has however been many a heated debate at the local college about just what to call it. lol

      • Maybe it depends on area. I suspect Appleton, or at least when I lived there, is/was a bit more like this than like more urban areas like Milwaukee. I couldn’t tell if it was just genuine ignorance/ lack of exposure (lack of the internet/early 1990’s, people grown up in the area might not have ever heard any other words for it) or people feeling like they must defend some kind of culture. The guy who made the rude comment about no friends sounds like he has other issues to handle. Problems more serious than what to call a drinking fountain. That and the cashier. Sounds like she was treating you as a collective stereotype/ us vs them mentality.

        Appleton: As a young child moved from Colorado to Appleton (strongly “drinking fountain” territory) I got a bit of a surprise and confused looks. Even teachers couldn’t help me. I’d do my best to explain, while getting snickers and just genuine confusion. They honestly didn’t know what a “drinking fountain” was. Me: feeling puzzled they didn’t know what a drinking fountain was. Them: puzzled I didn’t know what a “bubbler” was. So yeah I got made fun of. I tried and failed to “correct” my 4th grade team from being called “Bubbler Busters”.

        But tables turn and turn they do. I work in retail in MN. It’s sort of a tourist attraction. I can spot the Wisconsinites a mile away when that word “Bubbler” bubbles up from their mouth. They ask for it. I’ll give them a chuckle and a laugh, “You’re from Wisconsin, right?” They’d be like how’d you know?”

      • To me, a water fountain is what shoots up water from its center (usually found at malls or parks) and you throw pennies into it. After having left Wisconsin (Fond du Lac) at age 22, I have learned not to ask for a “bubbler”. “Drinking fountain” seems a more appropriate term. Better yet, play it safe and just ask for where the restrooms are, that is where they are usually located! 🙂

  4. I grew up in City of Milwaukee when they had bubblers on the streets. The story was that they bubbled constantly and that was the origin of the term. Whoknows…

  5. Richard Schneider says:
  6. Larry j Hansen says:

    The Bubbler started maybe in Milwaukee’s downtown. They were on Wisconsin Ave. They were like bird baths with a silver ball in the middle with , I believe 7 holes in the top. Out came bubbling water, they ran all day. THAT’S WERE THE TERM BUBBLER CAME FROM!

  7. kresensha says:

    I recall the city park in Clintonville, WI had faucets in the bathrooms branded with the name “Bubbler.” I always thought that must be where the term came from, but perhaps it was the other way around?

  8. Brian McCalpin says:

    Wait, Charles Lindbergh wasn’t the first to fly solo across the Pacific? Please enlighten…..

  9. If you use the term water fountain in Wi instead of bubbler when referring to the plumbing product that dispenses potable water for public consumption, Wisconsinites will tell you that you have contempt for “the bubbler” or say you are trying to take “the bubbler” away from them, which is not the case.

    • And if you say “Drinking fountain” they give you confused stares, at least in Appleton, more specifically Grand Chute area. Maybe other small towns as well. Though I’m not sure Appeton is a as small as it was like 25+ years ago. Maybe they are different now. I don’t know.

      Milwaukee wasn’t/isn’t so bad. They just sort of pause for a little while, then go “Oh you mean Bubbler” It’s over there…” Or they may tell you where to find it without giving any weird reaction. But maybe that’s because larger cities have more exposure than smaller towns. I more less grew up in WI, but I could never use the word “Bubbler”. it just sounded funny every time. I guess I was kind of a rebel.

  10. To Cindy–I don’t know why some Wisconsinites seem defensive when exercising their right to say “bubbler.” Maybe it’s an “us against the world” or stubborn German thing: “We’ve always called it a bubbler, we’re always gonna call it a bubbler, and maybe you just better call it a bubbler too if you know what’s good for you.” I dunno. In any case, sorry for your experiences; please try to “let it go…let it go-o-oh…” Ok, who’s up for a little Trump vs. Hillary debate…?

  11. Where ever you go some people are going to be jerks, I don’t care if someone calls it a water or drinking fountain. Since the vast majority of everyone else in the world calls it that IDK why anyone would get upset over it.

  12. So the bubbler thing always makes me smile. I was born in Marshfield, where we always called it a bubbler. When I was in elementary school we moved to La Crosse. There I was eventually forced to start using drinking fountain as my friends rarely knew what a bubbler was. Even within the state it’s regional. Now that I have moved out-of-state I never get to say bubbler, but in my heart it always will be.

    • Makes me smile too, even though I could never stand to use the term even when made fun of for not saying it. I know what it means, so when I get someone asking for one, I just give them a little tease with a smile.

      I do that too in MN when the word “Uff da” gets uttered by someone as soon as I hear it. I’ve not grown up in MN, but I find the word cute, funny and worth giving a little smile and a chuckle.

  13. i live in WI and I remember going to Illinois and asking where a bubbler was and everyone just looked at me with the weirdest look

  14. So, here is the likely real, actual reason Wisconsinites call a water fountain a “bubbler.” Taken from a post on the Milwaukee Memories site (http://www.retrocom.com/retromilw/more_milwaukee_memories_page_10.htm):

    “I discovered something perhaps 10 years ago that you might find interesting. At Water Tower Park in front of St. Mary’s Hospital there was a water fountain that had obviously been there for many, many years. It was ancient and isn’t there anymore. On the drain of that water fountain was stamped “F.W. Bubler & Co.”. That’s where “bubblers” came from. The first water fountains in Milwaukee were Bubler’s. I’ve never met anyone else from Milwaukee who knew that- so now you know.. ”

    Is this the real, actual reason for them being called “bubblers” (note the different spelling)? Who knows at this late time, which is probably 100 years or so after they were made. It is very likely they were called “bubblers” because they were made by this company, and the term just stuck as a sort of short-hand way to refer to them. The term caught on and became a (mostly) local phenomenon. This is exactly the way an urban myth gets created, the co-opted by others who claim they “know” as well as others who want to trade on their part in “creating” a classic Midwest term.

    It just *sounds* right.

  15. I called it a bubbler for years and I lived north of Boston.

  16. J.R. Manning says:

    I think you’ve been had.

    Harlan Huckleby was a Green Bay Packers running back, drafted from Michigan. He was an outstanding kick returner at Michigan, and he had a very respectable pro career with Green Bay. He played in 84 games for the Packers from 1980-1985.

    Huckleby had a career average of 3.2 yards per carry on 242 yards on 779 attempts. He also gained 411 receiving yards by catching 53 passes. But he was a steady kick returner with 1,300 career yards on 70 return attempts, a respectable average of 18.6 yards per return.

    As far as I know, the Packers never claimed that Mr. Huckleby invented any devices while under contract to the Packers.

  17. Jim Demers says:

    There’s a map from that geographic survey of word usage that more clearly shows the amazing results: two small areas of the country use the term regularly, while – here’s the mysterious thing – nobody else does. The odd dots on the map are almost certainly transplanted Wisconsinites or New Englanders.
    https://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_103.html

    I’m a native of western Mass., and it was a “bubbler” in my schools, back in the ’50s and ’60s. Whatever explanation you come up with will have to account for this really weird distribution. So far as I can tell, nobody has explained it yet.

  18. ehrichweiss says:

    Just an FYI, Wikipedia didn’t exist in the 90’s. It didn’t come into existence until 2001. It had been talked about as early as 1993 but didn’t launch until January 2001.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wikipedia

  19. Bubbler Boy says:

    Firstly, as someone from MA. it was SO great to find this piece. For us it is also called a “bubbler” (or, more accurately, “bubblah”) and when in another state people look at us like we asked where the “greepy”, “chimmy” or any other ridiculous made up word is. So it’s GREAT to learn we’re not alone! What I’d be more interested in though is why only MA., Wisconsin & R.I. call it that? There’s a lot of land between the three!

    Secondly, not to be a problem, but since you asked…I think you should indeed delete the original piece you discovered to be wrong. Lighthearted or not, it’s wrong. Sharing incorrect info when you know it’s incorrect just because its origin was in good humor adds to the problem of internet information being so questionable.

    The piece was written trying to be a factual piece. Not everyone clicks further links to verify or double check. If it’s out there it must be true!

    I applaud you for this follow up and as noted, it made me smile a lot But I think the original incorrect piece should go. Let this one stand though. It’s FANTASTIC!

    Thanks so much for the piece!

  20. Mavis Wood says:

    And Singer did not invent the sewing machine and neither did Elias Howe. That’s another interesting story.

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