Death of the bubbler

Everyone knows that the thing that you get a drink of water from is called a bubbler.

When I lived in California, folks called it a water fountain. Everyone knows that a water fountain is the thing in the town square into which you toss a penny and make a wish. To drink from a water fountain is disgusting, unless you’re a dog. I compromised and called it a drinking fountain. Back in Wisconsin, compromise is out. You want a drink, go find a bubbler.

I could tell you why it’s called a bubbler, or where it’s called a bubbler, but that’s beside the point. (If you really want to know, check out the Dictionary of American Regional English. Access to the online dictionary itself requires a subscription. If you are affiliated with a school, you may have access.) Do I have to tell you why we call that four-legged best friend a dog?

When I was a kid, the bubblers were turned on on Memorial Day and turned off on Labor Day. In between, they ran constantly so you didn’t have to wait for the water to get cold. The first bubblers I knew emitted water straight up – imagine holding a garden hose vertically so the water, when running slowly, goes straight up and runs back down along the hose. Later bubblers aimed the water so it came out in an arc. That was supposed to be more sanitary, since the water that didn’t get swallowed didn’t fall back onto the outlet. They also added a shield, so you couldn’t put your mouth on it.

The best bubblers had a cast metal bowl below. Water that wasn’t drunk ran down and filled the bowl. This was used as a birdbath when there weren’t people around, as a dog bowl when thirsty dogs were around, and as a step stool by shorter kids so they could reach the water without needing a big person to lift them. If you weren’t careful, standing on the rim of the bowl could result in falling in and getting wet feet.

Image from Imagine a bowl just above the tripod pedestal and you get an approximation of what I’m talking about.

Later bubblers came with valves to shut them off so water only ran when you held the valve open (but some of them could be locked open). Later yet (and indoors) they held a tank and refrigerant so water was pre-chilled.

Then people started buying water in throw-away plastic bottles – the kind that made a floating island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean – and bubblers started disappearing. Folks realized that you could carry a refillable bottle and they started replacing the remaining bubblers with bottle fillers or combination bubbler/bottle fillers. Really, why carry a bottle around when you can just stop at the bubbler when you’re thirsty? Don’t you have better things to do with your hands?

Today marked the end of an era – the last of the bubblers at work had yellow bags placed over them saying “out of service” and they are now only usable to fill bottles. I suspect this is a sign of the pandemic and fear that we could pass the virus via the bubbler. Pretty soon, bubblers will go the way of telephone dials and analog clocks. (A famous and simple cognitive screen is the draw-a-clock test. You get points for being able to draw a circle, put the numbers in the right places, and draw in the hands to show the time the examiner tells you. This week we had an 18 year old tell the therapist that he never learned to tell time on an analog clock. Is the test about to become obsolete?)

I promise the next post will not be “Hey kids! Get off my lawn!”

Great blue heron – Yahara Place Park