Skip to main content
HomeBlogsRead Blog

Trivial Water and Sewer Fun Stuff

Getting Rid of the Common Cup
By FWPCOA Webmaster
Posted on 3/18/2018 9:06 AM

A popular custom during the 1800's and early 1900’s was the sharing of a single “COMMON” cup or dipper in a fountain or pail of water. This was a major cause of disease transmission. Public health professionals were struggling with the idea of germ theory adoption into their policies and the public resisted change.

Thankfully, on January 28, 1912: the common cup was banned in 24 states. The Drinking Cup Law., where the public determined that common drinking cups were bad and must go. These states were

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington

Thes states outlawed the practice. However, there was significant opposition to the law, and it was felt politicians wee interfering with the right of people to get sick.


“One of the representatives of this Board [New Jersey State Health Board] while traveling on a railroad train noted that a family of children [was] afflicted with whooping-cough. As the children had spasmodic attacks, after each attack had passed they would go to the water cooler and take a drink from the glass which was used in common by all the passengers. After this had been repeated several times the inspector took occasion to go to the cooler, and holding the glass to the light found that it was smeared with the infected mucous from the mouths of these children.” (Board of Health, 1913)


The railroad companies response:


“‘The cranks whose senseless agitation has eliminated the public drinking cup, even in the Pullman cars, have inflicted much discomfort upon ordinary people and have largely increased the business of saloon keepers.’” (Tomes 1998)


In 1902, William T. Sedgwick a professor at MIT recognized the danger of the common drinking cup, cautioned against its use and noted that the public was not concerned, possibly due to the familiarity of its use.


“It not infrequently happens that the same persons who complain loudly and rightly enough, perhaps, of dirty streets, and are quick to blame public officials for their laxity in this respect will, nevertheless, at fountains, in railway trains or in theatres, apply their own lips to public drinking-cups which a few minutes before have been touched by the lips of strangers, possibly suffering from infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis or diphtheria.” (Sedgwick 1902)


Sedgwick referenced a solution to the common cup that we take for granted today, the dinking fountain we find everywhere today.


On October 30, 1912 the federal government established the very first national drinking water regulation that banned the use of the common cup aboard interstate train carriers. (Common Drinking Cups 1912)