When you reach for a bottle of soda, it’s easy to assume that soft drinks have always been around. It’s hard to remember that, only a few decades ago, there were no plastic bottles, no diet drinks, and no sports drinks. A century ago, soft drinks in bottles were a cutting-edge innovation. From mineral springs to diet soda, the story of soft drinks is a fascinating journey through history.
People have consumed alcohol for as long as there has been civilization, but our ancestors didn’t spend their whole lives drunk. At some point someone worked out that you got less ill if you drank water from the spring, rather than water from the pond. And it’s only a step from eating fruit and drinking water to mixing the fruit juice and water together to make a delicious drink. Medieval monks diluted honey in water to make “hydromel”, but way before them, the crazy Emperor Nero ordered snow to be brought from the Italian Alps and flavoured with syrup for his banquets.
In 1676 the “Compagnie des Limonadiers” was given a licence to provide a mixture of water, lemon juice and honey to the citizens of Paris. An 1832 guide, “The American Frugal Housewife”, contains a recipe for ginger beer, where yeast was used to provide bubbles but was not left to ferment. But adding yeast is a time-consuming way of making a drink fizzy. The great leap forward in soft drinks needed some serious science.
Joseph Priestley, the man who discovered oxygen, described in 1772 his “Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”, and fizzy water was born. Johann Schweppe founded the Schweppes Company in 1783; today they’re still making drinks from carbonated water. But the problem with fizzy water is keeping it fizzy. There were no mass-produced bottles with caps that could keep the bubbles in the drink, so for many years fizzy drinks were sold by the glass from soda fountains. Soda fountains opened in New York and Baltimore in the early 1800s and were a massive success, spreading all across the United States. Many were in drugstores, because soda water was considered to be good for your health. Enterprising pharmacists added a variety of medicinal herbs to the carbonated water, giving it both colour and flavour.
Lemon’s Superior Sparkling Ginger Ale made history in 1871 by becoming the first soft drink to gain a US patent. It wasn’t long before more familiar names appeared on the scene. In 1886 the first ever Coca-Cola was sold in Jacob’s Pharmacy, Atlanta, Georgia. Dr Pepper was invented in 1885 by Charles Alderton; wanting to impress, he named it after the father of the girl he was in love with. The drink was introduced to 20 million people at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair, when the newly-invented crown bottle cap meant that people could take the drink away to enjoy later.
In the US, Prohibition wasn’t all gangsters and bootlegging. Many citizens kept within the law, and bought soft drinks instead of alcohol. Sales boomed, and when Prohibition ended in 1933, drinks such as 7-Up and Canada Dry rebranded as mixers for hard liquor. Although World War II meant shortages for many people, drinks companies took the opportunity to establish plants overseas so that soldiers could get their favourite soda.
Since the 1950s, soft drinks have developed the variety and convenience that we know today. The 50s saw the production of the first successful canned sodas, with the first use of aluminium cans, and the 1960s saw the invention of the ring pull can. The first diet soft drink, produced for diabetics rather than dieters, was sold in 1952 as “No-Cal Ginger Ale”. Diet cola drinks were introduced by Coca-Cola and Pepsi during the 1960s. Initially flavoured with saccharine, diet drinks switched to using aspartame (“Nutra-Sweet”) during the 1980s, when caffeine-free versions of soft drinks also became available.
Although the modern soft drink industry began with carbonated water sold as a health drink, high-sugar drinks are now linked to obesity and health problems. Companies have developed and marketed alternative soft drinks, especially natural mineral water flavoured with fruit juice. Soft drinks with a high sugar content are branded as “sports drinks”, designed to replace electrolytes after a strenuous workout. And energy drinks, usually high in sugar but with additional caffeine or other stimulant ingredients such as guarana, have spread throughout the world.
Today stores offer a massive variety of drinks, but they all share this same history. So next time you open a cold bottle of cola, or crack the ring pull on an energy drink, you can think of those first bottles, those 19th century soda fountains, or even the Emperor Nero’s guests enjoying syrup and snow. Enjoy your drink!