Why Do Wisconsinites Call That a Bubbler, Anyway?

Apr 22, 2016

Katie Gnau recently moved to Shorewood from Chicago. And when her daughter came home from school one day, Katie noticed she had picked up a new word for a familiar item. So she asked WUWM's Bubbler Talk:  Why does everyone around here call that a Bubbler, anyway?

A bubbler, don'tcha know.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

It's a question a lot of Wisconsinites don't know the answer to, and those who think​ they know, have often fallen prey to the myth of Harlan Huckleby. As the story goes, a Kohler Water Works employee by the name of Harlan Huckleby designed the "Bubbler" in 1888. It was then patented by the company, which trademarked the name.

The only problem with the story is that's none of it's true. 

Beth Dippel is the executive director of the Sheboygan County Historical Research Center, near Kohler. With the help of the archivist at the Kohler Company, she started to unravel the myth of Harlan Huckleby. 

"They have done a bunch of research on this over a number of year, gone through their company records and have never been able to find a Harlan Huckleby working for Kohler period," says Dippel. "And then you get a little bit deeper and the years are incorrect, Kohler didn't really exist at that time. Kohler was part of Kohler, Heissen & Stein downtown in Sheboygan in the city. But they weren't making anything like bubblers, they weren't making plumbing products like Kohler is now."

The Town of Holland’s Lakeview School’s "bubbler."
Credit Photo preserved by Sheboygan County Historical Center

While Kohler did eventually create a design called a bubbler in the 1920s, the term actually predates that style of water fountain. So where did "bubbler" come from? While we can't be sure, Dippel has her own theory on how the term came to being.

In the late 1800s, Wisconsin was home to thousands of one-room schoolhouses. Many of them featured a relatively new bit of technology: a water container made by the Red Wing company. They were pretty similar to modern water coolers. 

"But there was also an attachment that you could lean over, just like we do with bubblers now. And they called that the bubbler," says Dippel. "And I'm thinking that's where that came from." 

So where did Harlan Huckleby come from? Dippel has no idea. 

"The curious thing is it is everywhere. If you go on the internet and do any kind of research with bubbler that just comes up automatically," she says.

You can hear the full conversation with historian Beth Dippel below:

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