by Craig G. Malesic, LC, PMP, EIT

Note: This is the first installment of an occasional series, Weird MEP History, which deals with interesting and sometimes strange facts and tidbits throughout the history of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.

We all know what a “Water Fountain” looks like, Right? We call them Water Fountains, Drinking Fountains, and Bubblers, just to name a few. You probably have something like this in mind…

Drinking Fountain
Drink Fountain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

But this is not what Water Fountains looked like at the end of the 1800s. Water Fountains consisted of a municipal spigot and a cup or ladle-type spoon attached to a chain. This was colloquially required to as the “Common Cup” or “Community Cup.” Here is an example of what I am describing:

Common Cup
Common Cup or Community Cup
Drinking Cup
Drinking Cup, 1880s, New England. Source: Massachusetts Water Resources Authority

Now you may be thinking to yourself…”That is crazy, who would do that?” Well it is not just an old concept, in fact it still exists in many countries today!

Common Cup Ad
An advertisement promoting the abolition of the Common Cup. Source: Kansas Historical Society.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, a greater emphasis was placed on public health. The spread of disease was beginning to be understood and the seemingly radical concepts by “rouge” scientists and doctors on germ theory was started to be more widely accepted. In 1888, a company name Kohler Water Works (perhaps you heard of Kohler) invented the bubbler. This was drinking fountain that shot an inch of water straight up. These changes began to mark the beginning of the end for the Common Cup in America.

Kohler Bubbler Fountain
Kohler Bubbler Fountain

From around 1900 to about 1912 a battle waged to ban the Common Cup. Smear campaigns erupted accusing the disposable cup industry of conspiring against the common cup. Public Health officials rallied for communal health and politicians began to take sides. Marketing campaigns were developed to gain public support.

First Drinking Fountain in London
First Public Drinking Fountain in London. Note the “Replace the Cup.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Ultimately public health prevailed. Chicago, IL banned the Common Cup on May 24, 1911. Plainfield, NJ follow suite on July 4th of the same year. More municipalities followed and the concept is not only gone from consciousness, but would be considered gross by anyone presented with the idea today – at least in the United States.

If you want to learn more, there are many blogs that detail a more complete history of this weird practice.

And if you are in need of plumbing engineering and don’t want to share a Common Cup, contact Steve List, PE, Manager, Plumbing, at 717-434-1557 or [email protected].

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2 thoughts on “Weird MEP History: The Common Cup

  1. Jay says:

    It was common out in the countryside as well. The cup hung near the hand pump. Of course there were less people, so the potential of sickness was not as great. I can show you the nail in the motor joint of the brick at our church where the cup used to hang yet today. Pumping out the water and taking a drink from the cup is a wonderful memory.

  2. Steve S. says:

    I think you mean rogue and not rouge, unless the people you were referring to were fond of rosy cheeks as well as better hygiene.

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