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Banning the Public Drinking Cup, 1912


In 2012, we all take it for granted that we can get a sip of water from a drinking fountain in any public building. Cold, clear water from a sanitary water fountain is a given. One hundred years ago, however, public buildings provided water from pitchers, coolers, faucets, pumps, or fountains. Many places had a common drinking cup, oftentimes a tin cup hanging from a chain attached to a wall. Some used a tin dipper for communal drinking.

On this date in 1912, the board of trustees at N.D.S.U. officially banned the use of all public drinking cups at the agricultural school’s campus, and the university pledged to install drinking fountains in all its buildings.

The common drinking cup at public drinking fountains had been a low-cost convenience, but it was also a health hazard from waterborne diseases. A man who had scarlet fever might drink from a tin cup and spread germs to the next cup user. Cold sores, tuberculosis or typhoid could also be spread.

A public-health movement led to the cry of “the public drinking cup must go.” As the Grand Forks Herald reported in 1909, “The movement to abolish the public drinking cup on the ground that it spreads the germs of disease, appeals to reason and good taste.”

Grand Forks public schools began to furnish “individual drinking cups . . . to the students in the public schools” in 1910. Bottineau city officials “banished” all public drinking cups from the city’s schools in 1911. The North Dakota state legislature followed a whole wave of states that banned the common cup, when a new law, in 1913, outlawed public drinking cups from all trains running through the state; from all public and private schools; and from all public buildings. Violation of the law was a misdemeanor punishable by a twenty-five dollar fine.

New ideas about providing water in public buildings bubbled up. Wisconsin’s Kohler Company and the Ohio’s Halsey Taylor Company sold drinking fountains in great numbers. Public health officials advised citizens to carry their own drinking cups; and some places provided “individual drinking cups made of oiled paper” near water faucets. By 1919, these waxed cups were called “Dixie Cups.”

On this day, we recall a time a century ago, when water consumption became a whole lot safer as North Dakotans banned the “death-dealing” public drinking cup.

Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Board Endorses Ban on Drinking Cup at State A.C.,” Grand Forks Herald, April 19, 1912, p. 8.

“Drinking Cup Now Outlawed,” Grand Forks Herald, September 2, 1913, p. 8.

“Public Drinking Cup Is Going,”Grand Forks Herald, August 18, 1910; Bottineau in Grand Forks Herald, February 21, 1911.

“Editorial,”Grand Forks Herald, July 24, 1909, p. 8.

“Editorial,”Grand Forks Herald, July 12, 1910, p. 4.

“Relentless War On Drinking Cup,”Grand Forks Herald, October 25, 1912, p. 10.

“Halsey W. Taylor,”, accessed on March 13, 2012.

“Dixie Cup Company History,”, accessed on March 13, 2012.