Disease and Drinking Cup Laws

September 21, 2011 at 12:42 pm Leave a comment

Here is a fantastic example of how the fear of diseases provided impetus for much early public health regulation in Anglo-North America. In or around 1911, Alberta joined a number of US states in outlawing the “common drinking cup,” i.e. a cup customarily provided by public and private establishments for common public use. The obvious rationale for the ban was to prevent the transmission and spread of communicable diseases through cup-sharing. Bans were typically worded as follows:

“On or after [insert date], no cup, glass or other utensil used for drinking purposes ordinarily known as a ‘common drinking cup,’ in schools, hotels, boarding-houses, apartment houses, tenement buildings, theatres, public buildings and factories, or in connection with any public drinking fountain or water faucet in any street or park, shall be provided for the common public use.”

I find it interesting that the focus of the ban is on the cup rather than the practice itself (although the effect is the same). The wording suggests that regulators were open to measures seemingly less extreme than direct regulation of personal behaviour. After all, nothing in the provision prevents a party of cup-sharing enthusiasts from heading to the woods with a jerrycan of water and a goblet. It is also very interesting, as my colleague Sarah Hamill points out, that religious institutions, which typically engage in sacramental cup-sharing, are not included (at least explicitly) in the list of institutions subject to the ban (or, could they be classified under “public buildings”?). This 1898 monograph, which advocates abandoning germ-ridden sacrament/communion cups in favour of individual cups during communion service, indicates that the communion cup was a primary source of the mischief that the bans sought to prevent.

Curiously, the ban still exists in the Charter of the City of Portland.


Photo courtesy of the Canadian Public Health Association.


Entry filed under: diseases, Health legislation, Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Connected Histories Compulsory, But Not For Everyone

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Reflections on health law and policy in early Canadian history


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