Taking the Waters: The History of the Modern Soft-Drink

27 Mar

Soft drinks are something we take for granted today. Everything from sparkling mineral-water, soda-water, tonic-water, lemonade, Sprite, 7-Up, Fanta, Solo, Irn Bru and the most famous soft-drink of all…Coca Cola.

But where did all this start? How did mankind one day discover that cold liquids would suddenly taste amazing and refreshing if they were merely carbonated? When were the first soft-drinks created and what did they originate as? How did they develop from curiosities and cures, to one of our most beloved and addictive beverages today?

This article tracks the development of the modern soft-drink from its birth as a medicine in the 18th century, to its mass consumption by its worldwide fizzy fandom in the 21st.

The Birth of Hydrotherapy

In the 18th and 19th centuries, medicine was crude. It was a mix of folklore, misguided science and age-old superstitions which on the whole…did nothing. Medical theory was advancing in this time, but cures for disease were few and far between and were of wildly varying effectiveness. People who suffered from anything from asthma to stomach-pains to muscle-pains would take a whole range of weird and scary potions, pills and concoctions to try and alleviate their discomfort and pain. However, the medicines prescribed by pharmacists and doctors were often unpleasant, either to look at, or to taste…in many cases, both!

It was in an effort to find cleaner, more comfortable ways to medicate the body that hydrotherapy was developed.

Hydrotherapy, or ‘water-therapy’, is the use of naturally mineralised waters, to cure various complaints. Mostly, it was used for muscle and joint pains. In cities such as Bath in England, it became fashionable to visit large public baths and springs which were filled with natural mineral-water to soothe joint-pains. This activity was known as ‘taking the waters’, from which the title of this article is derived.

The Rise of Medicinal Water

As hydrotherapy progressed, bathhouses and spa-retreats started popping up. Combined with a good diet and regular exercise, people began to recognise the benefits of water. Immersing oneself in a bath of cold water had the effect of increasing the heartrate, stimulating muscles and relieving joint-pain. Mineralised water was considered so beneficial that people began drinking it, as well as bathing in it. As early as 1661, the natural mineral-water available in the city of Bath was being bottled and sold for its ‘healthful benefits’.

However, there was some truth to mineralised and medicated water. And we should like to hope so. For without it, modern soft-drinks would not exist.

The first of these new waters was ‘soda water’.

Also called sparkling water or carbonated water, soda-water was created in the mid 18th century by a man named Joseph Priestly. In an experiment conducted in 1767, Priestly held a bowl of water above a vat of fermenting beer. The carbon dioxide released from the beer was impregnated into the water. Priestly called this vapour ‘fixed air’, and wrote about his experiements. He soon discovered that cold water impregnated with carbon dioxide had a pleasant, fizzy and sweet taste, and so experimented with finding a way to reproduce this effect. By dripping oil of vitriol (an old name for sulphuric acid) onto chalk, he could create carbon dioxide gas. By forcing this gas into water, he could create the world’s first soft-drink…

…soda water.

Although Priestly invented soda-water, the world’s first soft-drink, and recognised that it tasted wonderful, that was more or less all he did. It would take another man to put a marketing angle on Priestly’s invention and introduce it to the world. That man was an 18th century German watchmaker and scientist. A man named Johann…Jacob…Schweppe! And so…the world’s first soft-drink manufacturer, Schweppes, was founded in 1783.

The next step up from plain soda-water was a step away from commercial beverage-manufacturing, and a return to mankind’s original experiments with mineralised waters…to find cures for disease. Their first major breakthrough came in the mid 19th century with the invention of…


The word ‘tonic’, although rarely used today, still has medicinal connotations. And well it might, for that was precisely what it was meant to do. Tonic-water was invented when chemists put a small amount of quinine-powder into carbonated water. As quinine is very potent, only a small amount of it was added to a relatively large amount of water (only a few grains to each bottle), but the effect was amazing.

Apart from giving the water a distinct and slightly bitter taste…that tonic-water still has today…the water, thus treated with quinine, was now very effective in combating one of the most feared diseases that ravaged the African continent (and other tropical areas) during the 19th century – Malaria. It was for this reason that this quinine-infused water became known as ‘tonic-water’, because it was quite literally a ‘tonic’ (medicine) for malaria.

Tonic-water is relatively easy to make. You add quinine-powder, citric acid and baking-soda to a bottle of water. You seal the bottle tightly and invert it to mix the powders and dilute them in the water. The quinine is diluted with the water while the baking-soda reacts with the citric acid to let off carbon-dioxide gas. The gas, sealed inside the bottle, carbonates the water, thus creating carbonated tonic-water. Although a relatively easy process, the somewhat trial-and-error nature of making carbonated water this way was that the pressure of the gas could vary according to the quantities of baking-soda to water. If the pressure was too high, the bottle could explode in your hands!

One risk of bottling soda-water was that the corks used to seal the bottles could dry out and shrink, compromising the seal (and turning the cork into a dangerous missile if the pressure in the bottle managed to shoot it out). Some soda-water bottles were deliberately designed so that they couldn’t stand up straight. That way, the soda-water kept the cork damp and the swollen cork would keep the bottle tightly sealed.

Citrus Drinks

The next step up from creating cold, fizzy water was…creating cold fizzy water with flavour! With methods for safely and effectively manufacturing carbonated water now in place, the 18th and 19th century saw the rise of our first flavoured soft-drinks. The most famous of these was…lemonade!

Lemonade is created in several ways. Some use carbonated water, some use still water. In recipes calling for still water, baking soda was used to carbonate the water and lemon-juice and sugar was used to give it that sweet and sour lemony-taste that we all recognise today. Other fruits such as oranges and limes were also used to give plain carbonated water a different and more interesting taste.

The Most Famous of All: Coca Cola

Although famous today for being sickeningly sweet, conspicuously browny-red and for causing everything from pimples to dental problems to obesity and for being used for everything other than drinking, from cleaning toilets to removing blood…Coca Cola was actually invented as a medicine!

Coca-cola, or ‘Coke’ was invented in the state of Georgia in the United States in 1886. It was originally an alcoholic beverage called ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Cola’ and was created by a chemist named…John Pemberton.

Coca-Cola changed from its alcoholic form to its non-alcoholic form in the very year it was invented. In 1886, the temperance movement was beginning to gather steam and prohibition came to Georgia. Unable to sell alcoholic beverages, Pemberton instead marketed his new wonder-beverage as a medicine. Among other things, Coca-Cola was designed to cure headaches, impotence and drug-addictions!…An interesting claim when you consider that the drink famously gets is name ‘Coca-Cola’ because one of the main ingredients was…cocaine!


Originally sold over-the-counter by the glass, Coca-Cola was sold in bottles starting in 1894. Cocaine was removed from the drink’s recipe in 1903, but nevertheless, the name ‘Coca-Cola’ remained.

Drinks for a New Century

From their birth in the 18th century to their acceptance as a refreshing drink in the 20th century, soft-drinks underwent many changes. By the early 1900s, soft-drinks really began to rise in popularity. Temperence movements around the world meant that people, unable to buy alcohol, started drinking soft-drinks instead. Soda-fountains, manned by the ‘soda-jerk’ (so called because of the jerking-action used to operate the levers which carbonated the drinks with gas and which dispensed the aerated beverages) became increasingly popular. Soft-drinks were cheap, refreshing, delicious and easy to buy. A bottle of Coca-Cola cost about five cents in the early 20th century.

But why are soft-drinks called ‘soft’ drinks? This name was given to them to differentiate them from ‘hard’ drinks, meaning alcoholic beverages, as opposed to ‘soft drinks’, those which were non-alcoholic.

Soon, new flavours and brands of soft-drinks began to emerge, both on shelves and under soda-fountain counters all around the world. ‘Pepsi’ was first established in 1898, ‘7Up’ was created in 1929. ‘Fanta’ was invented during the Second World War in 1941. ‘Sprite’ and ‘Sunkist’ showed up in the 1960s and 70s. In keeping with soft-drink’s ‘medicinal origins’, ‘Pepsi’ (named for the pepsin enzyme which it contained) was supposed to aid the digestion of those who drank it. Of course, like Coca-Cola it didn’t actually do this, but Caleb Bradman, the man who invented Pepsi, liked to think that it did.

In the 21st century, soft-drinks continue to be enjoyed by millions of people all over the world, every single day. From its beginnings as a health-drink and tonic through its evolution as a healthy and tasty beverage, to a refreshing and invigorating drink to everyone’s favourite fizzy thirst-quencher, soft-drinks have remained in the public eye for the best part of nearly three centuries.

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Posted by on March 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


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