Wow! I received some well-deserved corrections from you readers of my last essay: a bio on songstress Bobby Gentry and a review of her most famous song. Thank you! It turns out that the use of “dinner” for the mid-day meal extends through northern rural America from Ohio to Montana as well as the South. In fact, one reader who grew up in the Cleveland metro area informed me of this! I knew that some rural areas of Indiana, West Virginia and Missouri say “dinner.” Wow. Thanks all for the corrections and information.
As long as we’re on regional word usage. What do you call this common device shown in the photo? On account of response to concern over the novel coronavirus, it has been eight weeks since I’ve seen one of these actually functioning anywhere. Their usefulness is surely missed in many public areas. Hydration is important!
Some say it is a “water fountain.” Some call it a “drinking fountain.” As with dinner vs. lunch, what name you call this device varies by region across the country. What do you call it?
As you ruminate on that, let’s consider the Kohler family, of Wisconsin.
Johann Michael Kohler emigrated to the United States from Austria, with his large brood of children and new bride, his second, around 1854. His oldest son, and fourth child – Johann Jr – was 10 years old. They settled in Saint Paul, the capital city of Minnesota Territory, some four years before Minnesota became a state. In fact, its Twin City, Minneapolis, across the Mississippi, was a mere fledgling: just a few houses, an original platting and the old Fort Snelling. St Paul was already over 4,500 souls.
St Paul was a like many new, inland, booming US cities of the era, such as Milwaukee, St Louis, and Chicago. Immigrants from almost anywhere in Europe could easily feel at home: their native language was spoken at church services and theatrical productions, was read in newspapers, and used to discuss current events over a cup of coffee (or a glass of beer). [OK, Catholics, constituting the vast majority of Austrians, even today, would have used mostly Latin in church]. And opportunity abounded.
The name of Kohler presents perhaps a fleck of interest here. In some cultures, particularly those with roots in Germanic and English lands, the family name often designates a skilled trade. This commenced in medieval times, as the importance of tracking families grew: recording land, taxes, and military service. In English, think of surnames like Baker, Smith, Cook, Fowler, Taylor, Mason. Not hard to guess what those professions are. Back in the day many families took their name from their ancestral trade, passed from generation-to-generation.
The name Kohler probably was Anglicized upon immigration and certainly came from Köhler: a charcoal burner. (In England, the name would be Collier. Neither that popular, but Collier did leave its name on a line of Encyclopedias.)
Charcoal burners were considered a lowly profession. They marched through their lives in exquisite solitude, collecting and piling wood, then turning it into charcoal with a careful, slow, low-temperature semi-burn, either in heaps of carefully assembled wood mounds, or in crafted kilns. It was an important profession: Charcoal was necessary as a heat source in smelting, forging, and smithing of many metals – from basic iron and copper to precious metals like silver. It was also used in glasswork.
So, historically, the Kohler’s family ancestors would certainly have been charcoal burners. As the Industrial Revolution matured, the significance of the role of charcoal burner decreased, even though charcoal remained extensively necessary. This precipitated a move to industrial scale production of charcoal. At some point, the Kohler family left their namesake’s profession; Johann Kohler, the elder, is listed as a Dairy Farmer from Schnepfau, Austria; that’s high up in a valley above Bregenz, near Lake Constance (Der Bodensee). Upon settling in Minnesota, he resumed this occupation.
From our travels and hikes, the alpine valleys of Austria are utterly drenched with countless dairy cows, almost regardless of slope; one hears cowbells ringing and echoing off every hill, dale, and ridge. Often the isolated and remote dairy farmhouses serve double-duty as guest houses, where a trekker can rest their feet, quaff a crisp refreshing beverage – and sometimes even get a meal, or a room for the night.
Dairy farming – for those who don’t also provide respite to travelers – is quite accommodating to the less gregarious and socially-oriented person, but not so much so as charcoal burner.
So, why leave? Well, there was much general disappointment in Europe after the failed attempts to liberalize governments in the widespread Revolutions of 1848. Other than that, people left for America because they could. My mother’s ancestral male-side left Germany at this time (also for Minnesota), and a generation later, my father’s maternal-side did, too (for Chicago). It was a good call for most who came to the US. My mom recalled her father and uncles speaking German around the house decades into the 20th century.
In any case, a few years after settling into St Paul, Johann the younger – Johann, Jr, and now going by John Kohler, Jr – started to make his own way in the world. His early schooling was there in St Paul. The eager and aspiring young Kohler picked up a variety of jobs there. At 18, he moved to Chicago, to study at Dyrenfurth’s College, the first business college in Chicago, and certainly the closest to St Paul.
The rapidly growing Chicago would be his hometown for a few years, as he took on more ambitious jobs – from merchant to traveling salesman. Kohler developed a sense of purpose, willpower and world-view that set him apart from his ancestral recluses.
The young, eligible, well-connected and well-traveled John Kohler, Jr met the acquaintance of a lovely young lady, Elizabeth “Lillie” Vollrath, some four years his younger. Lillie, a first-generation immigrant from Rheinland, Germany, happened to hale from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, some 50 miles north of Milwaukee. They shared a mother tongue.
In the similarly immigrant-rich city of Sheboygan, where German and Polish were as likely to be heard on streets as English (and that, often with an Irish accent), Lillie’s father, Jacob Vollrath, owned substantial interests in local manufacturing businesses, including two iron and steel foundries.
John and Lillie were married in 1871, in her hometown, and settled there. John was given a small interest in one foundry, probably as a wedding gift, and a job there as well.
We are now well on our way to telling the story of “what to call that convenient public area drinking device.” Many who are familiar with such water-spewers, and the Kohler name, might well know the story already. Especially those who live in, or were raised in, Wisconsin. But first we must separate fanciful fiction from the rest of the story.
A couple years later it’s 1873 and a great financial panic strikes brutally with icy indifference. Across Europe and North America economies collapse. With weak, or non-existent, central banks the holes open deep, wide, and quickly. It mercilessly lasted for several years. It was so devastating that the crisis was called “The Great Depression” up until the 1930s. Then, of course, that title was supplanted by the economic abyss of the ‘30s. With that lost decade, the numbing economic circumstances commencing in 1873 passed to the brink of historical oblivion, surviving now with the mere understated label of “Panic.”
But the Panic was grave: It nearly ruined the implausibly colossal Krupp manufacturing empire in the newly united Germany.
Panic. Depression. Prices collapsed. Currency depreciates. Cash flow seizes up. Businesses flounder, especially those leveraged with credit, as debt must be paid back with more valuable currency – and at a time with decreased receipts.
With his employer’s iron and steel business staggering (coincidentally, Krupp’s major product was also steel) young John Kohler saw an opportunity. He made an offer to purchase his employer’s entire operation. Vollrath and his partners were ready to sell and get out with their skin. Kohler joined in ownership with a small team, led by him; but he was majority owner of the firm. Before the decade flipped to the ’90s he would own it all.
One of the reasons historical economists provide for the panic was the massive over-building of railroads. The US was on a rail building spree. With bank and investor support, based on expectations of an ever-expanding economy, and the need for transportation to support it, railroad lines and networks grew stunningly and precipitously in the years after the civil war. This was perhaps, an example of malinvestment: money so cheap, and/or optimism so great, that capital which could have been either saved or conservatively invested chases after bigger returns, blind to risk. As railroads require vast amounts of steel (locomotives, boilers, tenders, cars, rails, depots), and capital to expand, it’s no surprise that many steel vendors found themselves in trouble.
_______________________ o _______________________ o _______________________
Initially making farming implements, Kohler’s company soon got into manufacturing bathroom fixtures: a product line for which they are still known around the world today. What came to be known as the “Kohler Company” (now based in the adjoining community of Kohler, not Sheboygan) is one of the largest and most successful privately family-held companies in the world. Their first great leap forward came from an idea probably fetched from family members over on the Vollrath side. Vollrath’s main business concern (also in iron and steel) had been experimenting with adding enamel to the surfaces of products. Kohler began doing the same thing with items such as tubs and sinks around 1878. Their great bathroom and plumbing business was born; and has since grown to be an extensive world-wide enterprise.
And now for the story of the drinking fountain. Or the water fountain. Call it what you will.
However, if you are very special – if you were raised in some very specific geographic areas, or spent many years there – you call this device a “bubbler.”
The largest of these special locales is a sort of L-shaped region. One leg of the “L” goes from Madison, Wisconsin, almost due east to Oconomowoc, about 2/3 the way to the Milwaukee city limits. From there the north-south leg goes up to Green Bay. The width of each leg, varies along their lengths, but is generally approximately 60 miles. Within this “band” the use of “bubbler” is nearly 100% among locals. The L spreads out into a bean shape if predominant use of bubbler is included, say over 50%; but definitely not beyond the western shores of Lake Michigan, and certainly never, never south across the Illinois state line. Say it there and, if you’re lucky, they look at you like you’re from a distant country. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be ID’d as a cheesehead and taunted with detestation, in ways that only people from Chicago-land (i.e. long suffering Bears fans) can administer.
Two other tiny US regions also call it a “bubbler”: Most of Rhode Island and slivers of eastern and southern Massachusetts, reaching in a few areas into New Hampshire. (Actually, they probably say “bubb-lah”, but the root and idea are the same).
I left Milwaukee nearly 46 years ago; I still instinctively want to call them bubblers. I’ve forced myself to say “drinking fountain,” for clarity (see Colorado, on map). But in the company of other native Wisconsinites I drift autonomically: it’s a “bubbler.”
A commonly repeated legend about the bubbler moniker and the Kohler Company lives on, percolating outward from this special L-region, and re-energized with every local re-telling. It seems that in 1888 a Kohler employee named Harlan Huckabee invented a device that would provide a small fountain of water, shooting up a few inches, from which a passerby could easily dampen their parched palettes by putting their pursed lips to the airborne stream and drawing it in. The fountain made a “bubbling” sound, with water gurgling up and splashing back down; hence the device that made the sounds was called a “bubbler.” Kohler trademarked and patented the device. And successfully marketed it as such – a bubbler – coast to coast and then internationally.
This is oft repeated fable is largely false. But repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them more credible. Followed politics at all?
Yet, there is a strong Kohler and Wisconsin connection. Kohler had been making a similar device since about 1900. And it was indeed called the bubbler. And it did make a bubbling sound (like a small brooklet) as the water shot up a couple inches for the quenching of thirst. But there was no Harlan Huckabee, and no 1888 invention. The word and name bubbler were never trademarked nor patented by Kohler.
Yet, by 1900, the word “bubbler” for a drinking device had indeed already been around for a few decades. So, what happened? As Beth Dippel of the Sheboygan Sun reports from her deep research:
“Wisconsin was filled with one-room schools in the late 19th Century, and each school had a pretty standard set of furniture and equipment, including portraits of Washington and Lincoln, blackboards, the old pot-bellied stove, maybe a globe and some type of container for drinking water. One container frequently used was the Red Wing Stoneware Co.’s ceramic water cooler or water ‘bubbler’ made as early as 1877. They came in three-gallon and five-gallon sizes and were prized possessions of schools.”Sheboygan Press 
When students filled a cup for drinking, air would move up through the cooler and make a “bubbling” sound. And kids in many schools called it just that: a bubbler.
Kohler’s product took the local popular school-children’s name for a drinking device. By the 1910s a new design had modified the basic design. Shooting the water straight up was considered unsanitary, since unconsumed water, which had touched lips, fell back onto the spout. Most devices now shoot an arc of water, as shown in the first figure. This invention was not from Kohler, but they adopted it and continued successfully selling “bubblers”, although they now didn’t make quite as much of a bubbling sound.
The product sold well for decades, and the name “bubbler” traveled with it, all the way to the east coast. Hard to imagine residents of Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia being anything but confused today if you were to ask them how to find the nearest “bubbler.” But once upon a time they did call it that.
From vernacular studies, about 4% of Americans call it a bubbler, or a water bubbler. I find that ridiculously high, but perhaps “water bubbler” bumps it up a few points. I’ve never met a single person from outside Wisconsin (or who didn’t live there a spell) have the faintest notion what a bubbler is. Some 33% call it a drinking fountain. The rest, a whopping 63%, call it a water fountain. The last one, water fountain, seems silly to me; that’s a place to toss coins for wishes, or to take off your shoes, roll up your pants and take a forbidden dip, or – more scandalously – fish out those coins.
Words change. They come and go. Regions are particular. Pop or Soda? But the name “bubbler” lives stubbornly in its homeland – that is, much of southern and eastern Wisconsin – as well as pockets of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and almost all of Rhode Island.
Well, that was a mouthful. Now I need a drink of water. Where’s the bubbler?
And a Kohler is no longer a charcoal burner. It is a fine, respectable bathroom fixture.
Happy public drinking.
Joe Girard © 2020
Footnotes and bibliography below.
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The Vollrath name and family business remains prominent in Sheboygan, however. One of Vollrath’s other businesses lived on and is a prominent manufacturer of commercial restaurant and food services equipment: still in the metal implement business. Since the Kohlers and Vollraths are multiply intermarried (in fact, after Lillie died leaving Kohler 6 children; he then married her younger sister and one more: he would go on to lead the Kohler dynasty into the 20th century), the current generations sit on each other’s boards of directors. There is a beautiful 26-acre park along the Lake Michigan shore in Sheboygan named for Vollrath, who donated the land and funded its early development.
The Kohlers are, of course, gigantic in Wisconsin. The family has provided two state governors (not to be confused with the Kohl family, and the Kohl’s chain of stores). In fact, founder John Kohler was once mayor of Sheboygan. Kohlers have gotten into the golf business, starting locally with two gorgeous links/dunes courses, one near and another along Lake Michigan: Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. These have hosted multiple major golf championships. They’ve also expanded into the golf hospitality business, owning and running the famous Old Course Hotel in Saint Andrews, Scotland.
If you get to the area, drop by the Kohler museum in Kohler. And, if it’s summer, try to take in a festival in Sheboygan. It doesn’t matter what festival: there will be really good bratwurst, plenty of beer, friendly people … and bubblers.