A Brief History of Seltzer Booms in America
For over 100 years, the bubbly beverage has gone in and out of vogue as a wellness tonic.
Three or four or five years ago, a man looked more or less ashamed of himself when he ordered ginger ale, lemon soda, or seltzer,” a bartender noted. “Nowadays, however, everything is changed. [Soft] beverages are the taste of the day.”
It’s a pretty astute summary of today’s craze for fizzy drinks, right? Except this observation was made not in 2019, but in 1885.
The quote comes from author Barry Joseph’s 2018 book Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, which underlines the enduring popularity of seltzer in America, far beyond the surprise 21st-century resurgence of La Croix.
“Seltzer is a chameleon,” Joseph explains. “Through time and all around the world, people have filled it with meaning, with the idea that it can communicate something about who they are and who they want to be.”
For at least three centuries, debate has raged over seltzer’s purported health benefits (or lack thereof); meanwhile, seltzer itself has gone in and out of vogue as tastes and fashions changed. From its invention in an 18th-century English brewery to today’s expanding selection of fancy “adaptogen-infused” carbonated waters, each time seltzer has bubbled up into the cultural consciousness, it’s done so in a slightly different way, moving, in Joseph’s words, “from medicine for the elite to beverage for the masses.”
“Seltzer is a chameleon… People have filled it with meaning, with the idea that it can communicate something about who they are and who they want to be.”
Late 1700s: “Taking the waters”
The idea that sparkling water has medicinal value dates all the way back to the Greeks, but it wasn’t until the 1700s that spa culture really took shape among the well-heeled classes of modern Europe. Spa towns, complete with opulent hotels and other entertainments, developed around naturally occurring mineral springs whose effervescent waters, doctors believed, could cure almost any ailment, from indigestion to gout to kidney problems. They catered to wealthy patrons and creative types who came to seek health — or just to see and be seen. The word “seltzer” itself comes from the name of one of these German spa towns, Niederselters, whose naturally carbonated mineral waters were bottled and exported around the world as early as 1787.
Copying the fashions of the Europeans, the United States quickly developed its own spa resorts in places like Saratoga Springs, New York, and Stafford Springs, Connecticut. Home to more than two dozen springs with naturally carbonated waters rich in minerals ranging from sodium, calcium, and magnesium to iron and iodine, Saratoga Springs became a destination for Victorian-era urban “invalids” with money to burn. Doctors declared that the mineral composition of the various springs could treat conditions from chronic constipation to rheumatism to sterility, and the resort attracted guests from near and far not only with its springs but with huge hotels, gambling casinos — even an opera house.
Around the same time, in England, a chemist named Joseph Priestley figured out how to carbonate water by pouring it back and forth between cups suspended above a vat of fermenting beer — a process he called “impregnating water with fixed air.” In other words, he invented seltzer. Priestley believed — wrongly, it turned out — that the bubbles were what gave seltzer its healing powers, and he hoped his man-made version might be useful in treating scurvy. It wasn’t, but Priestley’s innovation did launch an entire industry of seltzer makers and bottlers — including one brand, Schweppes, that’s still around today.
Though many spa-goers swore by the medicinal benefits of “taking the waters,” their improved health may have had a simple explanation, as author Francis Chapelle explains in his book Wellsprings: At a time when most sources of drinking water, especially in cities, were polluted, people pretty much always had a low-key stomach bug. Spending a couple of days in the country drinking clean water filtered up through layers of minerals couldn’t help but make them feel better.
Early 1800s: The spa comes to the city
These out-of-town spa vacations gave urban Americans a taste for carbonated mineral waters, and by the 1820s and 1830s, pharmacists set about trying to bring the health-giving benefits of spa waters to the city. And so the drugstore soda fountain was born.
“Pharmacists, or chemists as they were originally called, would take a water like Perrier, analyze the salts in it, and then buy the salts and make their own soda water to replicate it,” explains chemist-turned-bartender Darcy O’Neil, author of Fix the Pumps, a history of soda fountains. “Those minerals were exact chemical duplicates of what was coming out of the springs in Europe.”
In response to customer demand, pharmacists started adding flavors, most commonly lemon, in an effort to make the seltzer taste better. This, Joseph argues, marks the moment that Americans started to see seltzer not just as medicine but as a tasty refreshment. A similar debate was taking place in Congress in 1872, as lawmakers tried to decide whether imported mineral waters from Europe should be taxed as a luxury beverage or let in duty-free, as medicine. Domestic seltzer bottlers, trying to protect their edge in the marketplace, tried and failed to convince lawmakers to classify bubbly water as a refreshment; its association with medicine would hold on for a few more years.
Meanwhile, American tastes began to diverge from European ones. Where continental consumers preferred waters with a high mineral content, their cousins across the Atlantic developed a penchant for purity. With its mostly demineralized water, Maine’s Poland Spring became a huge hit in the United States, sold as a treatment for kidney and bladder problems. Within 20 years, Poland Spring was being distributed nationwide, and in 1893 it was the only water recognized for its “great purity” as a “natural medicinal water” at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. As Chapelle writes, this mineral/non-mineral split “still defines the difference between American and European tastes in bottled water” to this day.
Late 1800s to World War II: seltzer gets social
As time wore on, what Americans wanted from seltzer began to shift. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, seltzer was all about health,” Joseph writes in Seltzertopia. “In the 20th century, seltzer was about the promise of pleasure.”
As industrialization swept America after the Civil War, manufactured seltzer experienced its first boomlet as bottling plants proliferated. Its popularity peaked around the turn of the 20th century as waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived on American shores, bringing their fondness for fizz with them. According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, seltzer became a staple in Jewish households, even earning the nickname “Jewish Champagne.” At delis and candy stores and soda fountains in New York City and beyond, Americans from all walks of life drank seltzer for “two cents plain” or sweetened with an array of syrups, giving birth to classic recipes like the lime rickey and the egg cream.
Seltzer also got a boost from the growing temperance movement, whose leaders had begun warning Americans about the medical and moral dangers of booze nearly a century before Prohibition took effect, in 1920.
“During Prohibition, with the pseudo-demise of alcohol, flavored carbonated beverages took over,” O’Neil explains. “Bartenders and businesses, instead of closing their bars, started opening soda fountains.”
There was even a time, just after World War II, when a seltzer delivery man in New York City might’ve earned more than the President of the United States, Joseph writes. But seltzer’s fortunes soon began to change. In the late 1950s, people started leaving the city for the suburbs, and soda fountains were displaced by diners. Coke became the new king of bubbly beverages, and seltzer entered a decades-long decline.
1980s: the Perrier effect
With the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s came a growing concern among American elites about the purity of municipal tap water. In 1976, Perrier first arrived on American shores, just in time to meet that demand. Bottled in Europe since the late 1800s, Perrier found a willing audience of yuppies flush with cash and eager to associate themselves with the cachet of the expensive French brand. That led to renewed interest in American-made seltzers, as the New York Times reported in 1979.
“At a time when the haut monde has turned to Perrier and other sparkling waters in its relentless effort to inject all life with effervescence, a coincidence of nostalgia and the desire for unadulterated products and calorie-less treats has focused attention on the city’s ineradicable and thriving seltzer underground,” read the story, titled “Seltzer: A Renaissance in Fizz.”
Seven years later, the Gray Lady would report that newfangled flavored seltzers had become the fastest-growing segment of the carbonated-drinks market. In the ’80s and ’90s, brands like Original New York Seltzer and Clearly Canadian flooded the marketplace with sparkling waters in flavors like vanilla cream and wild cherry.
“When you drink a flavored, carbonated water you are making a statement about yourself and your lifestyle,” the paper quoted a trade journal publisher saying. “It is that you consider yourself to be as natural as the product itself.” (Sound familiar?)
The 2000s: from La Croix to White Claw
By 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported, Americans were picking up the seltzer habit again, after a benzene-in-the-bottles scandal caused Perrier to recall its entire United States inventory in 1990 and nudged consumers toward flat, bottled waters like Evian. Americans were looking for an interesting, refreshing, and healthy alternative to coffee and sodas, and seltzer suddenly looked sexy again. SodaStream, a company that had been around for more than a century, finally brought its home carbonation machine to the United States market, and in 2013 sales peaked at more than $500 million.
The story since then is familiar: La Croix made its improbable leap from Midwestern mom drink to millennial-friendly Instagram star, sextupling its stock price and unleashing a wave of competitors that have been eroding its market share ever since. Alcoholic “hard seltzer” is now a thing, with sales more than doubling since last month, and the New York Times is again talking about a “seltzer bubble.” Companies are one-upping each other by adding flavors like lemon-honeysuckle as well as CBD and herbal “adaptogens.” In an echo of those eyebrow-raising Victorian-era medical claims, brands are again promising to fix everything from digestive problems to stress through the simple act of popping a can of seltzer.
“Seltzer has always been consumed in a larger cultural context of contrasting with the other options people have,” Joseph explains. First, spa waters were thought to be superior to polluted city water, then the bubbly drinks served at soda fountains were perceived as better options than alcohol; today, flavored seltzers are viewed as a healthy alternative to sugary sodas like Coke and Pepsi.
Today’s scientists have a firmer grasp on seltzer’s healthfulness than their 18th- and 19th-century counterparts did. One of the most interesting findings from seltzer science tried to pinpoint exactly why fizzy water seems so refreshing on the tongue. It started with a trial in which participants were asked to drink carbonated beverages in a high-pressure chamber; under pressure, bubbles couldn’t actually form, but subjects still reported tasting the fizz.
Inspired by those findings, scientists discovered that effervescence is experienced not as a physical sensation of bubbles bursting on the tongue, but by the sour taste buds, which register the tanginess of the carbonic acid released in the fizz. So it’s not the bubbles but the chemistry that gives seltzer its liveliness.
With no calories, caffeine, or sugar and only “natural” flavorings, seltzer had everything the health-conscious 21st-century consumer wanted. There had to be a catch, right? As if on cue, along came a lawsuit alleging that La Croix cans were poisoning us with cockroach insecticide (they’re not), and a study warning of sparkling water’s negative effect on dental health. “Is La Croix Bad for Your Teeth?” asked a much-clicked 2016 headline in The Atlantic. Turns out, seltzer and certain citrus flavorings do contain acids that might ever so slightly erode tooth enamel, but it’s still literally 100 times better for your teeth than sugary sodas.
There’s a lot of conflicting science around seltzer: Some findings say it’s just as hydrating as regular water, and kids who have a SodaStream at home are better hydrated than those who don’t. Other studies suggest the opposite, since something about the bubbles may make us want to drink less of it when we’re thirsty. One study claims carbonated water promotes weight loss by making you feel full; another says it sabotages your diet by making you feel hungry.
The jury’s still out on the effectiveness of enhancements like CBD and adaptogens, but on balance, the science on seltzer seems to say: drink away. Drink seltzer because it makes you more regular. Drink it because it makes you feel like a fancy 19th-century aristocrat, or because it transports you back to the golden era of the American soda fountain. Or drink it simply because you like the taste. Just don’t expect it to cure your rickets.