Siphons, Seltzer, and Soda: A Spritzy History
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
It started as a way to purify water. Today, it remains the key component of many of our favorites drinks, and has inspired its own specialized bottle collectibility. Carbonated water, known to us as “seltzer”, and the soda siphon, or “seltzer bottles”, have a long, rich history – let’s dive in, shall we?
Carbonation kills (bacteria)
Because Early European water systems were often contaminated due to poor sewage and overcrowding, it was believed that highly carbonated water purified the liquid of any harmful bacteria. In fact, the theory held up – highly acidic carbonated water does help to kill bacteria. So when scientist Joseph Priestly wrote the first paper describing how to impregnate water with air, artificially produced carbonated water swept onto the scene quickly. In 1773, Jacob Schweppes produced and sold carbon water for the first time - advertising it on its “pleasant taste and medicinal virtues”. Seen as a “fix all”, carbonated water sold far and wide as a soothing, healing potion - when in fact, it was just clean water.
As widely successful as it was, carbonated water’s bottle design needed major improvement. As it was, 18th-Century bottles could not be re-corked to save its contents for future use. Instead, once its cork was removed, the sparkling water quickly went flat.
The modern-day siphon as we know it today was developed in 1837 by a Parisian by the name of Antoine Perpigna. Essentially a modern siphon, its head was fitted with a valve which was closed by a spring.The liquid was able to escape the bottle only through release of the valve. By the late 1830s siphon bottles of the same basic design of those in use at the turn of the 19th century became standard. These bottles became the preferred means of dispensing soda water across Europe. While it had to undergo many improvements and alterations, the general shape, size, and mechanism of the siphon became standardized by the mid-1800s.
Bringing seltzer to America
Funny name, isn’t it? Seltzer. If you’ve ever pondered how the spritzy drink got its nomenclature, it began in the tiny West German town of Niederselters. The drink was called Seltser there, and was a favorite of Eastern European Jews.
It was in the 1800s that immigrating Jews from the region brought the idea to the US, and in an attempt to recreate Seltser in their new country, they used well established carbonating technology and gave it the Yiddish name, Seltzer.
By the 1920s and 30s, seltzer reached its commercial heyday in the United States. By this time, thousands of bottlers were delivering their seltzer products to homes, hotels, soda fountains, and bars across the country. While some wealthier establishments purchased seltzer in elegantly etched bottles that displayed their personalized name / logo, others simply received bottles featuring individual bottling company’s logos.
What made these fizzy drinks so popular? While many people enjoyed drinking carbonated water plain, a practice still commonplace today, its main success began when soda companies got involved, adding their special ingredients to create an entirely new drink - Soda. Early 20th-century companies like Coca-Cola produced flavored syrups, sold them to soda fountains, where soda jerks would mix the syrup with seltzer for a fresh, fizzy concoction. These sweet and sparkly drinks hit the mainstream and became an instant success.
For all us Brooklynites, here’s a little seltzer history that hits close to home: a wildly popular concoction in many homes in the early 1900s was the “egg cream”— a combination of seltzer, milk and Fox’s U-Bet chocolate syrup. Today, egg creams remain a nostalgic drink made by mixing seltzer, milk, and a special vanilla or chocolate syrup. If you know, you know.
Just as quickly as seltzer stole American hearts, historical circumstances stopped siphon production just as fast. By the 1940s, seltzer syphon production was concentrated largely in Eastern Europe. However, World War II wreaked havoc on the region, including destruction of many factories – siphon production plants included. Another effect of the war was scarcity. While Americans were encouraged to scrap raw materials and ration, the luxury of heavy-duty, glass and metal seltzer bottles was no longer an economically feasible (or patriotic) decision for American companies. The resources to make them simply were not there.
Piling onto the blows that siphon companies faced overseas, at home, Americans were becoming increasingly used to bottled sodas, and eventually, the ready-to-drink soda bottles were favored over waiting for a drink to be mixed at a soda fountain. By 1920, over 5,000 soda bottlers were reported by the US census. By the beginning of the war, colorful logos were being baked onto bottles, giving them an extra lure. By the war’s end, the debilitated siphon industry had essentially
vanished. Bottled – and eventually, canned –
soda was here to stay.
Seltzer bottles as collectibles
While many soda bottle collectors have a few of these bottles in their collection, there are not many who specialize in siphons – perhaps due to their weight and size. While many of these bottles still survive intact today (they were made of very durable glass, and are able to withstand internal pressures of up to 160 pounds per square inch), they are still collectible for their unique logo etchings/color labels, vibrant colors, and occasionally beautiful glass design. With hundreds of possible bottling companies to collect, each displaying rather unique labeling, collecting, or just searching for old syphons can be a rewarding and exciting process.
While they cannot be refilled without the use of a special machine only available at specialized bottling companies, these antique beauties can still adorn homes with their rustic charm and historical brilliance. From DIY projects like making these colorful bottles into lights, to making them into centerpieces, to simply using them as bookshelf decor, these timeless glass creations can bring a taste of history into your home in a uniquely charming (and even nostalgic) way
At Yesterday’s News, we've recently acquired over 30 seltzer bottles featuring unique logos and colors. Check out our latest Instagram post, or stop by to find your unique piece of soda history!