From the lame business history files, Part I: the water cooler

It's been a staple of office history longer than the staple: the water cooler.

It may not be the most pressing topic on you or your co-workers minds, but the next time you're standing around the water cooler in your office, and you want to waste some time, you could start spouting out interesting facts about our inanimate but invaluable friend.

According to my admittedly casual trip through the newspaper archives, the water cooler itself has been around at least since the mid-19th century, and my guess is that it was around long before. However it worked, mostly throughout the 19th century and early part of the 20th, it was in the form of an overturned glass jug with a block of ice inside. Occasionally, there were modifications. Petersburg, Virginia's paper of record had a few enthusiastic stories of T.J. James, their inventor hometown boy making good; he had come up with a new type of water cooler, where there was a separate container for the block of ice, cooling the water below.

Eventually, people started questioning whether gathering their liquid nourishment for the water cooler from the river was such a good idea. The New York Timesin January 1907 interviewed a state health commission who noted that because of a recent thaw and flood, the Hudson River had the potential to be filled with "vast quantities of surface filth." This was kind of a problem since many ice houses were collecting blocks of ice from the river, where they eventually made their way to places like office water coolers. The health commission was a little worried about folks catching typhoid.

As early as the 1930s, bosses are quoted griping about their employees wasting time chatting at the water cooler.

So the next time your boss tells you that you're not being paid to go shoot the breeze at the water cooler, you might want to point out that you're simply carrying on a fine tradition in the office place. In fact, spin it the right way, and you might even convince your employer that if you don't occasionally wander up to the water cooler to talk, you aren't doing your job.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist, primarily for Entrepreneur magazine, and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.
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