WATERBOYS FOR THE OLD TIMERS!
By Norris Chambers.
Drinking facilities were a little different in the old days. Who would have thought about bottling water and selling it for several times the price of oil? Oil was selling for $1.00 a barrel, or less. A barrel of drinking water at today’s bottle prices would be at least $36.00!
The standard drinking arrangement in the country consisted of a big bucket of water, usually in the kitchen, and a dipper hanging over the side, on a nail in the wall, or reclining peacefully on the table or counter beside the bucket.
The dipper probably deserves a short description. The usual dipper held about a cup of liquid or maybe a little more. Ordinarily it was made of metal and the handle had a hook on the end for hanging. Some dippers were enameled and some were just plain tin or aluminum. Everyone used the same dipper when drinking. Ordinarily there was no sink to dispose of unused liquid so it was either poured in the slop bucket or thrown out of the kitchen door.
Another type of dipper that was occasionally used was a gourd dipper. Some varieties of gourds produced a round melon about the size of a softball with a slim protrusion that connected to the vine. When the top of the melon was cut off it resembled a dipper. When it was dried and cleaned it was actually used as a dipper. The handle was also hollow and often had an opening in the end of the handle where it had been attached to the vine. Gourd dippers were used outside at the well or cistern more often than in the house. These gourds made very good dippers and served the purpose well.
There was the tale about a traveler who stopped at a farm house for a drink of water. A fresh bucket was drawn from the well and he and several of the farm folks gathered around for a drinking session. One of the old ladies had a very unattractive mouth (bad teeth, snuff, etc.) and the traveler wasn’t too anxious to drink from the same dipper. He filled the bowl, turned it up and placed the end of the handle in his mouth, thus quenching his thirst with two or three full dippers.
The old lady grinned, showing her unsightly teeth, and said: “You’re the only one I every saw who drinks water through the handle like I do!”
This unsanitary drinking procedure was not confined to the home. Most outdoor public jobs provided water for the employees by means of a waterboy. The waterboy (not always a boy – sometimes an old man or a cripple) carried a bucket of water and a few tin cups with hook handles suspended from the edge of the bucket. He walked up and down the work site and waited for the call, “Hey, Waterboy!” and then approached the group. Those who were thirsty took a cup and quenched their thirst after which they hung the cup back on the side of the bucket. Then the water boy moved on to another thirsty group.
Waterboys, or water carriers, were widely used during the old days of railroad construction and on later jobs when our highways were being built. Dam construction projects also required water delivery and tin cups. For awhile in the later thirties I worked on a government sponsored WPA program building roads, bridges and fences. On this project the waterboy with his cups was a very necessary part of the program.
In 1940 I worked on the construction of an army camp in preparation for our entry into WWII. There were hundreds of employees on the job and most of them were being served with the usual water delivery system and were drinking from the tin cups.
After the war things began to change on pubic work projects. The paper drinking cup was introduced and the waterboy carried a dispenser of paper cups instead of the metal ones. When a cup was used it was stuffed in a sack suspended from his shoulders and was later discarded as trash.
The dipper in the kitchen of the farm house died a natural death with the disappearance of the small farm. Most of the small farmers had moved to a city to work in a defense plant during the war and did not return. The small farms were either bought or leased by a “big farmer” who did the work with machinery. The tractors didn’t use enough water to worry about. The little farmers who moved to town now buy bottled water or use water filtering systems for drinking water. Each family member has his own glass or uses a paper cup one time and discards it.
Were the old days a lot of fun? Yes, as long as you don’t try to compare them with these modern days!