In my experience, Americans have a love-hate relationship with seltzer. Some love the effervescence and refreshing taste. For others, it’s too fizzy and not nearly sweet enough. Although a fan myself, I had not given seltzer too much thought until fairly recently when I encountered it here in the archeology lab. A collection of stoneware mineral water bottles excavated from the Cove House site at Gateway National Recreational Area inspired me to explore the history behind the carbonated water we know as “seltzer.” And that history, it turns out, is pretty fascinating!
In 1767, English chemist Joseph Priestley invented soda water by infusing water with carbon dioxide. Later in the 18th century, J. J. Schweppe (sound familiar?) built upon Priestley’s findings and manufactured carbonated mineral water. The Schweppes Company’s bottled carbonated water was first offered for commercial sale in Geneva in 1783, and has been popular ever since. (Back, Landa, and Meeks 1995)
The bottled carbonated water business sprung from an attempt to emulate the wildly popular natural mineral water that was all the rage in 18th-century Europe. The term seltzer derives from the German town Selters, which was famous for its mineral springs. Mineral water can be defined as water that while underground, absorbs minerals and metallic trace elements from surrounding rocks (Erfurt 2001). Beginning in the 18th century, mineral water from Selters was bottled in stoneware vessels and shipped around the world. German potters known as Krugbacker, or pot bakers, produced cylindrical, brown mineral water bottles from the second half of the 18th century through the end of the 19th. According to author Beatrix Adler, these bottles (and their contents) were a “huge mass product” by the end of the 18th century. In 1874, Westerwald potters in Germany produced over 12 million of them! (Adler 2005: 352)
Did people in the 18th and 19th centuries simply love the taste and refreshing quality of carbonated water? Perhaps, but what they primarily sought in natural mineral water was not a tasty drink, but rather a cure for a variety of physical ailments. In an era in which many people were suspicious of doctors and medicines (both of which seemed often to hurt instead of heal), natural mineral water offered potential relief that, if not always completely effective, was at least not harmful.
Throughout the 19th century, pharmaceutical companies were not required to label their products with a list of contents, so well-meaning consumers often had no idea what “medicines” they were actually using or giving to loved ones. Most products contained dangerous and highly addictive ingredients. Even “cordials,” “preservatives,” and “calmatives” recommended as daily tonics for babies were usually made from opiates and/or alcohol. Historian Ruth Goodman notes in her book on Victorian life that “it seems likely that many babies died from the side effects of medicine, and that many others had their long-term health undermined ” (Goodman 2014: 248). She asserts that “much of the popularity of the water cures of the nineteenth century was due to their providing an alternative to taking these drugs” (Goodman 2014: 283). Given the options offered by the pharmacist – and procedures like bloodletting that were still commonly prescribed by early 19th-century doctors – I might have opted for the mineral water as well.
Historically, there are two ways in which afflicted people have sought a cure by water: bathing in it, and drinking it. Bathing in natural hot springs as well as mineral springs was popular among the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. By the second half of the 18th century, mineral water as a therapeutic beverage had become extremely popular in Europe and America. Numerous historical accounts detail the relief and healing that many people found by partaking of mineral water. English doctor John Hemming published his account of the mineral waters in Gloucester in 1789. According to his report, people were initially afraid to drink from the local mineral spring because of the water’s color, strong taste, and bad smell. Eventually “many cures were accomplished” by drinking the water (which he found to contain fixed air, calcareous earth, iron, and magnesia), including digestive problems, flatulence, fever, nervous diseases, heart palpitation, fainting, rheumatism, and of course, the ever-problematic “female complaints.” (Hemming 1789)
So, did it work? Mineral water has remained popular in many countries and has recently experienced a revival as part of the alternative medicine field. It has long been held that certain of the minerals and elements in the water can have beneficial effects on specific ailments. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people may have indeed noticed improvements to their health after drinking it because the water provided minerals missing from the typical diet. Still today, some people claim that drinking carbonated water can help with indigestion! Perhaps some people benefitted from actual improvements in their health due to the trace elements and minerals; perhaps some benefitted from the power of positive thinking amidst all of the hype. Either way, lots of people were in on the craze.
Stoneware mineral bottles were common from the middle of the 18th century through the end of the 19th. Around the turn of the 20th century they started to fade out of fashion as cheaper glass bottles became available (and as over-the-counter drugs became more reliable with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906). Details like shape, size, handle form and placement, and makers’ stamps can help to ascertain a specific date range and production locale. The earliest mineral water bottles were ovoid in shape, with a basal ring at the foot and a squat, narrow neck. They were buff to light gray in color and often had an impressed mark and/or a cobalt-painted letter indicating the source spa. As the 18th century progressed the bottles became less ovoid and more bullet-shaped. The second half of the 18th century saw the development of a different type of bottle that was produced by the specialist potters known as Krugbacker, or pot bakers, in the Westerwald region of Germany. These bottles, which changed little throughout the 19th century, were slender and cylindrical and colored reddish brown. They had straight, vertical sides by the second quarter of the 19th century. Bottles were stamped with marks indicating the bottling company, the jug baker’s mark, the well number from which they were filled, and the town from which they were shipped. (Adler 2005; Skerry and Hood 2009; Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc., 2010)
Some of the mineral water bottle fragments from the Cove House collection exhibit the light color characteristic of mid- to late-18th-century vessels. Most of the bottles appear, based on their shape, color, and stamps, to be from the early to mid-19th century. The “HN” on the partially reconstructed bottle from the Cove House stands for Herzgothum Nassau, which translates to Duchy of Nassau, and refers to the independent German state of Nassau which was formed in 1806 and was annexed by Prussia in 1866. We suspect that the “EMSER KESSELWASSER” refers to a town or spring name. Another bottle fragment from the Cove House is stamped “BAYERN KOENIGREICH,” which translates to the Kingdom of Bavaria, which existed from 1806 to 1918. The “KISSINGEN” stamp refers to the name of the spring from which the water was extracted.
The many maker’s marks, inscriptions, medallions, letters, and numbers present on these bottle sherds undoubtedly have much more to tell us than what we have covered in this brief post. Intrigued? We hope so! This is just one example of a National Park Service archeology collection with incredible research potential. Maybe you are just the person to dig a little deeper!
What we do know is that these bottles represent more than a preference of taste for the men and women who bought and drank from them so many years ago. Mineral water was consumed – sometimes in spite of its taste – because of its supposed medicinal qualities. Chances are when you pick up a bottle of seltzer at the supermarket, you’re not expecting it to cure you of nervousness, fever, or rheumatism. For many people who drank mineral water from these old stoneware bottles, that’s exactly what they were expecting, or least hoping for. We all know what it’s like to feel unwell and to hope for relief from pain or discomfort. For 18th– and 19th-century folks, these bottles offered a chance to feel better.
Adler, Beatrix. Early Stoneware Steins from the Les Paul Collection. Germany: Dillingen/Saar, 2005.
Back, William, Edward R. Landa, and Lisa Meeks. Bottled Water, Spas, and Early Years of Water Chemistry. Ground Water Vol. 33 No. 4, 1995, pages 605-614.
Erfurt, Patricia J. An Assessment of the Role of Natural Hot and Mineral Springs in Health, Wellness and Recreational Tourism. Thesis, James Cook University, 2001.
Goodman, Ruth. How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dust Guide to Victorian Life. London: Liveright, 2014.
Hemming, John, MD. The History and Chemical Analysis of the Mineral Water Lately Discovered in the City of Gloucester; the Various Diseases to Which it is Applicable Considered; and the Necessary Regulations for Drinking it With Success Ascertained and Prescribed. London: A. Grant, 1789.
Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood. Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America. Williamsburg, VA: the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2009.
Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc. Underwater Archaeological Investigation of the Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck (7S-D-91A) Volume I: Final Report. Prepared for Delaware Department of State and Federal Highway Administration and Delaware Department of Transportation, 2010.
“200-Year Old Seltzer Bottle Found on Shipwreck” Blog article found at: http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/31465
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs._Winslow%27s_Soothing_Syrup_(3092809529).jpg
18th-century Bloodletting: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blood_letting,_18th_century._Wellcome_L0005142.jpg
Bottle, ca. 1700-1799. Museum of London. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/115747.html
Bottle, ca. 1770. Recovered from Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck Site. Courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Image found in Skerry and Hood, page 55.
Bottle, ca. 1845-1855. Adirondack Museum. http://adirondack.pastperfect-online.com/31694cgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=54AA5054-AA25-4A80-959B-384044535445;type=101
Bottle, ca. 1898-1930. Museum of London. http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/777699.html
Joseph Priestly, image ca. 1874. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSM_V05_D400_Joseph_Priestley.jpg