What’s all the fizz about?

By Katie Burlison, Chief Curator

If you have visited Gallier House recently, your guide may have pointed out an odd-looking pitcher in the “sick room” on the second floor (Fig. 1). According to the donor who gave the pitcher to Gallier House in the 1970s, it was used for café au lait. Examination of the object, however, reveals that it is not a café au lait pitcher but in fact was used to serve seltzer, or mineral water, when it was made in late-nineteenth-century Paris. (Fig. 2)

Fig. 2. Seltzer water pitcher, porcelain, late 19th c., Paris, France. Collection of Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses, 1973.45.1a-c. Photo courtesy Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses.

The underside of the pitcher is stamped “APPAREIL LHOTE / POUR EAU DE SELTZ / BREVETE S.G.D.G. / FRANCE / ANGLETERRE BELGIQUE ITALIE / FABRIQUE A PARIS”, which translates to “Apparatus for holding seltzer, patented SGDG / France / England Belgium Italy / Made in Paris.” (Fig. 3) The SGDG stands for Sans Guarantie du Gouvernement (without government guarantee) and represents a patent rule put in place in 1844. The inside of the vessel is divided evenly along the length into two parts. Its spout is also divided; each side has a hole, with a ceramic stopper, through which liquid can be poured.

Fig. 3. Base of seltzer pitcher. Collection of Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses, 1973.45.1a-c. Photo courtesy Hermann-Grima + Gallier Historic Houses.

Seltzer (or, in French, “eau de Seltz”) was named for the town of Selz, Germany, which was known for its mineral springs as early as the sixteenth century. Porcelain pitchers like the Gallier House example were used to serve seltzer until around 1900, when glass and metal bottles came into use. One compartment would contain a liquid solution of tartaric acid (citric acid) and the other a liquid solution of bicarbonate of soda. The two liquids mixed upon being poured into a cup to create an effervescent drink.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, seltzer water was being sold in New Orleans as a refreshing beverage as well as for medical uses. The Louisiana Seltzer Water Manufactory on Poeyfarre near Camp Street, sold seltzer, tarred seltzer Vichy, and, later, sparkling lemonade.[i] Besides Selz, other European locales like Vichy and Kissingen were known for having superior waters; in America mineral waters of Saratoga, New York, and White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, were sought after. Medical professionals valued the best brands for their “freshness, briskness, and uniform strength”[ii] (Fig. 4).

Drug stores sold seltzer water by the bottle or the case, to a retail or wholesale buyer, to druggists, hotels, and steamboats. Some sold magnesium citrate in powder form to mix with the waters for a laxative effect. Reverend Theodore Clapp, a minister and a board member of the Medical College of Louisiana, extolled the health benefits of drinking “three or four tumblers” of soda water before breakfast to “quicken my pulse, produce a flush in my face, and excite the whole system.”[iii]

Fig. 4. Advertisement for Syme’s Drug Store, Daily Picayune, July 14, 1866.

Drinking mineral water was not the only way one could enjoy it in the nineteenth century; soaking in water with certain minerals was also considered to have health benefits. Many hotels advertised in New Orleans newspapers their proximity to mineral springs to lure patrons from the heat of the summer to relax in a spa-like environment. Ads for Bladon Springs in Alabama targeted “those leaving this city for health or pleasure during the warm season” and listed the exact mineral composition of its waters. They quoted doctors who claimed the waters’ valuable mineral properties benefited those suffering from such ailments as “chronic inflammation of the alimentary canal,” gout, rheumatism, and “chronic inflammation of the skin.”[iv]

Fig. 5. Glass seltzer bottle, France, early 20th century. Image courtesy Beauchamp Antiques.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, glass replaced ceramic as the favored medium for seltzer bottles (Fig. 5). The number and variety of vintage glass seltzer bottles on the market today suggests they remain popular whether as decorative objects or functional pieces. Stores like Williams Sonoma and Hammacher Schlemmer are even making new versions inspired by the early twentieth-century forms.

 

Further reading
Burke, William. The Mineral Springs of Virginia. Richmond: Morris & Brother, 1851. https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Mineral_Springs_of_Western_Virginia.html?id=MsIrAQAAMAAJ

C, Jessica. “Seltzer, Anyone? Stoneware Mineral Water Bottles from the Cove House Site.” https://nmscarcheologylab.wordpress.com/2015/08/06/seltzer-anyone-stoneware-mineral-water-bottles-from-the-cove-house-site/

Joseph, Barry. Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary History of an Ordinary Drink (Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, 2018).

Pearson, Janet. “Medicinal Springs of Virginia in the 19th Century.” http://exhibits.hsl.virginia.edu/springs/

Twilley, Nicola et al. “The Medical Origins of Seltzer.” https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/gettin-fizzy-with-it/510470/

 

[i] Advertisement, Daily Picayune, May 17, 1868: 3, accessed April 17, 2018, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-12261F6BF5E76870@2403470-12249181C49E4428@2-1253E478EF94327B@No Headline?p=AMNEWS.

[ii] Advertisement for Syme’s Drug Store, Daily Picayune, July 14, 1866: 2. Accessed April 16, 2018, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-1225D4C453CF1350@2402797-1224822C35B655F0@1-12931F021D4562C5@No+Headline?p=AMNEWS.

[iii] “Letter from the Rev. Mr. Clapp,” Daily Picayune, April 11, 1854: 2, accessed April 17, 2018, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-122474B898781D48@2398320-122433F536203B50@1-123AF1763105A485@Letter from the Rev. Mr. Clapp?p=AMNEWS.

[iv] Advertisement, Daily Picayune, August 01, 1854: 4, accessed April 17, 2018, http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/image/v2:1223BCE5B718A166@EANX-NB-1226D4132B5AE850@2398432-1225DF51D87598C0@3-1253EA8BDDD19F2B@No Headline?p=AMNEWS.

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