Sparkling water has been revered for centuries for its alleged healing qualities. Naturally occurring from a specific combination of minerals, sparkling waters are found throughout historical literature. Our first references to the therapeutic use of spring water come from the Ancient Romans and Greeks, who administered bathing in specific springs for particular ailments. In The Natural History, Pliny the Elder records his affection for the benefits of spring water:
“Then, again, there are others that are tepid only, or lukewarm, announcing thereby the resources they afford for the treatment of diseases, and bursting forth, for the benefit of man alone, out of so many animated beings.”
The so-called “Dark Ages” were rich with strange medicines and ritualistic practices – but the enlightenment of the 1700s found a revival of classical literature and, along with it, a wellspring of interest in traditional plant medicines and other time-tested therapies.
In his book Wellsprings, Francis Chapelle purports his hypothesis that the sanctification of spring water had a simple explanation. He believed that chronic health issues were so commonplace during this time that they were ubiquitous to humanity. A lack of potable water, especially in densely populated areas, was the culprit. Spending time in the country, away from communicable diseases and unsanitary water, while imbibing and bathing in mineral rich spring waters would help shake almost any of the common pathogens of the day.
Chappelle’s thesis may have historical roots. In any case, sparkling water may have been the only innocuous medicine of a time when snake oil and petroleum patent medicines were standard.
Published in 1839, a treatise titled, “ON THE GENERAL LOCALITIES, NATURE, AND USES, OF MINERAL WATERS” included the following passage:
“Dr. T. Thomson says, that the Spa waters may be termed either acidulous or chalybeate, for they are a combination of both. Their effect is stimulating, and they promote the secretions, especially with respect to the kidneys and the skin. The general effect of the carbonated waters is stimulant, and they are even capable of producing a certain degree of transient intoxication, they are also useful in bilious affections, and as an agreeable drink in fevers, but are injurious in cases of flatulency or indigestion.”
The popularity of sparkling water and spring water only increased during the Enlightenment, and by the 1800s, there was a worldwide commercial demand. This demand was met and marketed to, which comes as no surprise. However, the extent to which this demand prompted international trade is certainly peculiar.
The most popular (or at least the most commercially successful) brand to emerge from this time period must be that of the historic Niederselters Springs in Germany.
Indeed, it's this famous town where the term “seltzer” originated, prompted by the far-reaching trade routes that carried the precious effervescent fluid in stone bottles to all locations cosmopolitan enough to see world trade.
Europeans weren't the only ones to capitalize on the ability of modern travel to export their wares, but a prodigious amount of artifacts worldwide illustrate their reach. Recent research on artifacts discovered at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, give a colorful glimpse into this history.
Decommissioned in 1946, Fort Snelling became an interest to public and academic study for it's historical value. Over 17 years, from 1965 to 1981, archaeologists from the Minnesota Historical Society excavated the site and uncovered 600 cubic square feet of collections. Initially these artifacts did not receive much attention as the original design for the excavation focused mainly on documenting construction techniques rather than the artifacts themselves. Apart from the sheer volume of material collected, outdated and hard to sort through paper catalogs documenting the collection made it difficult for later researchers to tackle any kind of successful analysis.
In 2013, however, almost twenty five years after the project's initial completion, interest resurfaced. Pat Emerson, Head of Archaeology at the Minnesota Historical Society, applied for and received state funding to finally showcase the collection and create an electronic database for the artifacts.
Pat found something astonishing among the myriad of military paraphernalia like buttons and tobacco pipes. She discovered the remains of several clay water bottles with a very recognizable insignia. The word “SELTERS” and “HERZOGTHUM NASSAU” surround the image of a lion on it's hind legs: the unmistakable signature of the German born Niederseltser sparkling spring water.
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