Humanities & Culture

Bubbler: A Secret Code

Barry Roal Carlsen

I was applying for a passport at my suburban Houston post office when the postal agent reviewing my paperwork leaned over the counter, squinted conspiratorially, and asked, just above a whisper, “Do you know what a bubbler is?”

I realize that national security has tightened, but this seemed like an odd question nonetheless. Perhaps the State Department had instituted some obscure appraisal of intellect. If so, ask me something more challenging, such as what sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia means.

Then he smiled.

“I see you were born in Wisconsin. I’m from Waupun myself,” he explained.

Better than a secret handshake, more reliable than SSL encryption, for those of us no longer living in the state, knowledge of the word bubbler seems to be a secret code for, “Yes, I’m from Wisconsin.”

I didn’t even know there was another word for bubbler — A drinking fountain? Really? — until I went to the UW and met a bunch of Minnesotans who could never seem to tell me where the bubbler was, because they didn’t know what the bubbler was. I mean, what is your problem? You live right next door to Wisconsin; hasn’t the word ever leaked across the border?

A quick read of the source for all that is true and trustworthy today — Wikipedia — tells me that a bubbler is actually a Bubbler, a trademarked name for a product invented in 1888 by what is now Kohler Company. Apparently, the original Bubbler shot water one inch straight into the air, creating the bubbling phenomenon that gave the product its name. After several years, it was redesigned to cause the water to arc, which made drinking from it easier. There’s an original Kohler Bubbler in front of the Wisconsin state capitol — well, at least there is according to Wikipedia, which shows two photos, one of the Bubbler alone and a second showing it in use.

I remember as a child lining up for the Bubbler each day after recess. The promise of a cool, refreshing drink was often dashed, however, by the reality of a tepid sip, with the teacher warning us not to put our mouths on the nozzle, the apparent ground zero for pestilence in Appleton.

Like other displaced Badgers, I usually ask people who say they’re from Wisconsin if they know what a Bubbler is. Until recently, the positive response rate was 100 percent. Then I met two women from Eau Claire at a conference. They appeared to be in their thirties, and they seemed normal in every way, except, much to my surprise, they didn’t know what a Bubbler was.

I prodded: have you lived in Wisconsin all of your life? Are your parents from Wisconsin? H’mm. Is it possible that the term only exists in eastern Wisconsin, and I have a lot of apologizing to do to those circa late-1970s Minnesotans? What’s next: Milwaukee being pronounced as if it has three syllables?

Worse than being a factor of geography, it seems that Bubbler awareness is related to age. A website I found by clicking around one night said that it’s an “old school” term used by aging Badgers. (I can’t recall the source, but I certainly remember the slur.)

I’ve lived in Texas for twenty-five years, and I suppose that’s long enough to have stopped calling the drinking fountain a Bubbler. But if Badgers by nature are cantankerous — I mean fierce — time isn’t likely to make us more mellow, is it? So now, I absolutely refuse to refer to the Bubbler as anything else (which may result in my being thirsty in unfamiliar public places, but that’s a small sacrifice for principle). I trained my native Texan children early in their lives to call it a Bubbler as well, at least when they’re with me. If they can say y’all instead of you guys, put things up instead of away, and have a test over rather than about a subject, they can accede to this.

Like the Rio Grande to Texans or the Mississippi to those who live along its banks, the Bubbler is not just a drinking fountain — it’s a watery symbol of my Wisconsin heritage. It says who I am and, I now know, my approximate age.

If only I could find the Bubbler of Youth.

Barbara Belzer Adams resides in Houston, Texas.

Published in the Spring 2012 issue


  • Don Stenmark , MS Chem E, '67 March 9, 2012

    Enjoyed your article. ( Born and raised in Milwaukee, but moved to Houston after graduation. Now live near Waco,TX ) .
    My kids know what a “bubbler” is too .

  • Dick Beeman, PhD Entomology, '77 March 10, 2012

    I moved to Kansas at age 31, having spent 29 of my 31 years in Wisconsin. A day or two after arriving I asked a clerk at Sears to please direct me to the bubbler. I thought the question was rather simple and straighforward, but it was met with incomprehension. After repeating the word several times, slowly and loudly, I surmised that the clerk was either hard-of-hearing, or intellectually challenged, or perhaps knew English only as a second language (but she had a Kansas accent). It took a few more such encounters before it sank into my provincial little brain that “bubbler” was not the universal term for that thingy that spurts drinking water.

  • Ellen Costello March 12, 2012

    I first heard the term “bubbler” in Rhode Island (1971). I (a native New Yorker) thought it was the most ridiculous word! Of course, my roommates (all from Rhode Island) thought I was nuts to want to drink from a water fountain. Thanks for explaining the derivation of the term – I’m sure I drank from bubblers in parks without knowing the proper name for them.

  • Ann Grady March 14, 2012

    Loved this article! Recently explained to a Vermont friend about this and the derivation. My uncle, who spent his entire academic career at Michigan State University, once took an informal survey in his classes asking who knew what a bubbler was. He realized that bubbler is, indeed, localized in Wisconsin to the eastern/southeastern part of the state. I grew up in Beaver Dam. I certainly know what a bubbler is.

  • Heidi March 14, 2012

    I loved your article! I am from Providence RI and we say “bubbler” there, too. When I moved to OH, I was surprised that no one knew the term.

  • Dan Piette March 14, 2012

    Hi Barb, nice article. I have been in Houston (more or less) since graduation. It is good to see some other Badgers (and Terrors) have made this hot city home as well.

  • Maureen Bouffard March 15, 2012

    Really loved your article!
    My husband and I have lived in Houston(Spring area)
    For many years , and in Texas since our marriage 53 years ago.
    Regional speech is one of our favorite topics for discussion. Dr. Cassidy was one of my professors at The University. He was an expert on regional speech.
    Maureen Bouffard ’56
    Larry Bouffard ’55

  • tim gehl March 15, 2012

    Nice article, Barb. Graduated from the UW in 1980 and have been in Houston since 1981. My family understands “bubbler” and we do our best to explain it to our Texas friends. My father’s family was from Kohler, but he never told me that “bubbler” was a kohler invention. Another accolade to the town that everyone sits on.

  • Jack Pankratz March 16, 2012

    One morning in High School, the loudspeaker went off in every classroom and srea of the school “WHOEVER PUT THAT FAKE DOG POOP IN THE FRONT HALL BUBBLER REPORT TO THE OFFICE NOW!!”
    I know who it was but bet to this day it’s a mystery in the Office. I think every kid knew who it was but never told. His nickname is “Zeke” All the kids We’re ALL at least in our 80’s now and no teachers left.
    Thanks for your input!

  • Jack Pankratz March 16, 2012

    One morning in High School, the loudspeaker went off in every classroom and area of the school “WHOEVER PUT THAT FAKE DOG POOP IN THE FRONT HALL BUBBLER REPORT TO THE OFFICE NOW!!”
    I know who it was but bet to this day it’s a mystery in the Office. I think every kid knew who it was but never told. His nickname is “Zeke” All the kids We’re ALL at least in our 80’s now and no teachers left.
    Thanks for your input!

  • john davis March 17, 2012

    Try to find someone to play “sheephead” with outside Wis.

  • Sarah Merline March 17, 2012

    I grew up in Green Bay, graduated from the UW class of 2011, and I still say Bubbler! It can’t be just an aging term – it’s still the norm in Green Bay.
    I’m living in Michigan now, and people think I’m crazy saying Bubbler. Turns out people are more willing to accept out WI “local” terms when you add things like Booyah and Cheese Curds to the list!

  • Jan Krieck Lane March 17, 2012

    I’ve been drowning in nostalgia since the arrival a few weeks ago of my share of stock in my beloved Green Bay Packers. So this article was right up my alley. Born and raised in Appleton, transplanted to San Diego and now Las Vegas …. I’ve tried to spread the word about bubblers, but to no avail.
    Interesting that people in Rhode Island know the word. Can anyone explain that?

    Jan Krieck Lane

  • Toby Gebheim March 18, 2012

    I am from Appleton and I use this test all the time. I also lived in TX for sometime and found no one knew what a bubbler was. Then when I went to TX guess I did not know that “What kind of COKE do you want” was there what they asked when you wanted a “POP”. ON WISCONSIN

  • Joe DiDomenico March 19, 2012

    @Jan: I grew up in the greater Boston area and although I can’t explain this either, we all used the term bubbler. Never any question or thought that another word would do. The only difference is that we pronounced it “bubbla.”

  • Jay Wilson March 20, 2012

    Thanks, Barb, coming to Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1969 as an elementary school librarian, the two unique words I ran into were lavatory (rest room) and bubbler. I was born and grew up in Marion, Indiana. Our city park had an artesian well with a number of bubblers. In the 50s, those bubblers were declared unsanitary, and replaced with drinking fountains that arch. Schreder’s Department Store in Two River, W still had a bubbler until recently.

    In Grant County, Indiana we also had a secret code word, nibby, meaning nosy. In a court case, I heard a lawyer ask a witness if she was a nibby neighbor? When I went to collage a few counties away i was surprised to discover that my classmates had never heard of the word.

    Few people outside Wiscosin know what cheese curds or cheese whips are

  • Star March 21, 2012

    I knew this word–parents are both Univ of Wisc grads. I went to Southern Illinois Univ for one yr and when I first got there, I asked for directions–and the guy said, “Two blocks past the tar.” I said, “Tar–you mean blacktop?” He looked annoyed. “Tar..tar! Water tar!” We also used to say davenport–remember that one? When my kid was 8, she went to a house with a rotary phone and could not call me. Apparently, we aren’t born knowing to stick a finger in the hole, haul a ring around…around…then let it go. By the way–I am VINTAGE, not old.

  • Spider Johnson April 17, 2012

    I grew up in Worcester, MA and many there referred to a fountain as a bubbler. When I finally ended up in WI, there was a distinct language gap, except for bubbler

  • Steve Margot May 3, 2012

    There’s a term for exactly this phenomenon. It’s called a “shibboleth”. It comes from the book of Judges in the Bible: Gileadites kept Ephramite refugees out of Gilead by asking them to pronounce the word “shibboleth”. Ephramites would invariably pronounce it “Sibboleth”, because they couldn’t make the “sh” sound!

    “Shibboleth” now refers to any word that’s used as a kind of word to detect whether people are in-the-know.

    Considering the original usage of “shibboleth” being from a border crossing, your experience at the border checkin could not have been more apt!

  • Robert Cotterman May 7, 2012

    I was raised in Madison, WI, in the 50’s and remember the word well. I live in Atlanta now and no one has ever heard of it. Always fun to ask Badgers if they know when I meet them here. Most do. My heart is still back there in Madison.

  • Bob Annen May 8, 2012

    The original “Bubbler” by Kohler had porcelain parts (a Kohler specialty). The pear-shaped knob at the top, from which a vertical stream emerged, was of porcelain. Also the large circular bowl containing the discharge knob and collecting the water flow, was of porcelain.

    At the bottom of the cast iron pedestal was another metal bowl, collecting the drainage. This was for our pets.

    I do not consider anything beyond the original version, as described, as a true “bubbler”.

  • Pam Sharpe May 8, 2012

    I too suffered blank stares when asking for the nearest location of a bubbler while in Arkansas as a child. The next incredulous stare came a few days later when I asked a clerk in a convenience store if they sold paddle pops. I’m wondering how many other “Milwaukeeans” or Wisconsinites know what this term means? It is actually just vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate on a stick.

  • Glen Hierlmeier May 8, 2012

    I was born and raised in Madison in the 50’s and 60’s, and lived above what is now The Nitty Gritty; back then it was Glen ‘n’ Ann’s Cozy Inn. Glen and Ann were my father and mother. There were working bubblers all around Capitol Square and the Capitol building itself. The bubblers that most stuck in my mind were located on the corner in front of the Washington Hotel, across from the railroad station on West Washington Avenue and across the avenue from Borden’s Dairy. There were two bubblers; one had been for whites and one for negoes, though the signs had been removed. It was one of my earliest exposures to racism and had a profound effect on me.

  • Pamela Sue May 8, 2012

    Loved how you wrote this wonderful article… Had me giggle a bit as a reminder of what took place when I moved to Texas as a teenager from Racine. High school was rough enough but to be ridiculed about the use of the word bubbler by my English teacher in front of the class was horrifying to say the least. All I needed was a drink of water, and I wasn’t interested in a sip from a water fountain! My gosh, there are thousands of dirty pennies lining the bottoms of those things! Why on earth would anyone drink from that?

  • Mary Lou Scesney May 14, 2012

    Great story! I enjoyed it very much. I grew up in Appleton. I’ve lived in DC and New York and bubbler was a foreign word in both places. I now live in Atlanta and of course here in the South we only drink Coca-Cola or ice tea so there is no need to use the word bubbler.

    Mary Lou Scesney

  • Marilyn May 16, 2012

    I grew up in Racine and we walked everywhere. But it seemed that just when we got thirsty, there was a bubbler! Didn’t have to lug a water bottle with us. I also remember paddle pops, and my husband said he minored in sheepshead at Marquette. Horlick ’60

  • Mike Gieryic June 4, 2012

    New York friend living in a dorm at UW-LaCrosse was asked by
    his roommate to walk down to “The Bubbler” so he put on his
    suit jacket expecting to go to a local bar – instead he walked
    down to the end of the dorm hallway to a drinking fountain!!

    Catholic grade school had bubbler handles taped shut so no one
    would take a drink of water before lining up for first communion! At that time no food or drink after midnight if you were to receive communion the next morning.

  • Gail Baugniet June 7, 2012

    T’Rivers native here! Always used the bubbler in grade school, St. Lukes; and Washington High School. Only after I moved to MN did I learn that “bubbler” was not a common word. What a surprise, enso?

  • Carla Tobergte June 11, 2012

    As a Wisconsin transplant to Ohio I have carried on the use of the word bubbler although I, too, have the view that a bubbler is only a bubbler if the water bubbles up. My best recollection of bubblers in Wisconsin is of the ones at Vilas Zoo. Unfortunately, I just asked my daughter if she knew what a bubbler was and she did not. I think they were still at the zoo 20 some years ago but she does not remember them and I guess I don’t use the word often enough to have passed it on to my children. I have now remedied that with saving the article about bubblers for however many generations after me decide it is worth hanging onto. (I suppose it won’t be around after I’m gone, but I’m giving it my best effort to keep some Wisconsin in my Ohio family.)

  • Kate February 7, 2013

    I’m 18 and from Southeastern Wisconsin and all of the native Wisconsinites use the term bubbler! Now that I’m going to Marquette and half the school are made up of people from Illinois, I get critized for calling a bubbler a bubbler in my own hometown. I scolded them plenty! XD

  • Marisa March 27, 2013

    I’m 18 and from Franklin, Wisconsin (20 min outside of Milwaukee) and have only ever called it a bubbler. My family spends spring break in SC every year so I always purposely go up to people and ask where a “bubbler” is just to see their faces and pick a fight. 🙂 I’m planning on attending either Purdue or Marquette for college and will definitely continue school anyone who interacts with me in the proper term for what they call a “drinking fountain.”

  • fred April 1, 2013

    I’m fred from Austin. Tx. but never spent a summer in Texas until I was 26 years old, as we spent the summers in Wisconsin. We would spend six months in Cambria Wisconsin from may to October before returning to Crystal City Tx. There was a bubbler in the city park that I could barely reach to drink from when I was still about five or six years old. When they remodeled the park, my sister saw it in the junk pile and managed to salvage it. She had it in her living room in Watertown Wis. for years. My brother Roy knew I always wanted it so he talked my sister into letting me have it. It now sits in my living room in Austin Texas. When people say “oh what a cute water fauntain” I always say “oh, you mean what a cute bubbler” and they always ask “bubbler, what’s a bubbler?”

  • Heidi April 10, 2013

    Fred, you are a lucky man. I would gladly display a vintage Wisconsin bubbler in my home in Virginia.

  • cathy April 30, 2013

    I left my Green Bay home and headed to Maryland with my young son many years ago. After his very first day of school he came home very upset. It seems he kept asking if he could go to the bubbler and the teacher felt he was being disruptive – of course everyone laughed at him – so he got in trouble. Sometime during the day the teacher had found out what he was asking about and the class had a nice lesson on different regional phrases. He was still not happy that I did not tell him about it. haha I was not going to tell him I didnt know! We are in Kansas now and I still ask for the bubbler!

  • Jeffry a house June 6, 2013

    Extensive dialect survey shows precise extent of use of “bubbler”. Go to question 103 and a map will appear.

  • Joanna June 6, 2013

    I moved from Illinois to Wisconsin for my first teaching job. On the first day of school, a boy came up to me and asked if he could use the bubbler. I thought that was an odd name for the urinal, but of course I let him go. Not long after that, a girl came up and wanted to go to the bubbler and I had to ask her what she meant. My introduction to the bubbler! After living in Wisconsin for 40 years, I am proud to use the word bubbler whenever I can!!!

  • Chris July 31, 2013

    “What’s next: Milwaukee being pronounced as if it has three syllables?”

    I grew up in Racine, so Milwaukee was my old stomping grounds growing up. I regularly hear Wisconsinites use Mi-wau-kee, which which omits the L but has three syllables. The 2 syllable Mwau-kee is also common, but I think the most common way doesn’t really fit neatly into either two or three syllables – you can still hear the “i”, but just barely.

    And being from Wisconsin, I’m willing to bet

  • Chris July 31, 2013

    Oops. Didn’t mean to repeat the word which the second sentence after your quote, and meant to drop that last incomplete sentence. Sorry about that.

  • Taylor November 12, 2013

    I’m a 19 year old from Milwaukee but currently living in Green Bay, and all of us still say Bubbler!

  • Jen March 8, 2014

    I came upon your article after doing some research into the term bubbler–nice writing! I’m a native Milwaukeean who just moved to Houston, and everyone I know back home calls it a bubbler therefore it’s definitely NOT an old-school term! I got a few weird looks the first time I asked where the bubbler was, but I’ll always say it; reminds me of home. 🙂

  • Chris March 21, 2014

    I totally enjoyed your article and all the comments. I am a Wisconsin native from the east side of the state and now live in Madison. Traveling a bit before settling in Madison I met quite a few different people and used bubbler interchangeably in order to get what I needed. Vilas Zoo still has a bubbler. The reason parts of the East coast, Australia, and I think New Zealand use “bubbler” is that the Kohler Co. sold the bubbler product to those areas long time ago. On Wisconsin!

  • Shelly August 15, 2014

    I am from Eau Claire WI and no we don’t use the word bubbler. I am in my 50’s and didn’t hear the word used until I had a friend from Racine in high school. I wonder if it is because of Minn. influence or the distance from the larger cities in southern WI. I’ve noticed that we pronounce other words differently also.

  • Morgan September 14, 2014

    I’m from Waukesha, and moved to Arizona when I was 16. No one knew what I was talking about. People tell me a have still have a distinct accent, and by the fact that still use of place names as they are spoken in South Eastern Wisconsin.

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