“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…