By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS
“Is this some kind of error?” Ellen Nichols asked in an email she sent me a few years back. The Wisconsin native found the oddly shaped bottle near the mouth of the Rio Grande just after Hurricane Emily stormed ashore in Mexico. This peculiar bottle had a rounded base which made it impossible to stand upright.
The bottle you found is called a “torpedo or “soda bottle” I replied, and though rare today, was common a hundred years ago.
Though the name, soda was first used in the late 1700s, man has enjoyed the healing properties of carbonated waters for thousands of years. Romans documented many of Europe’s most famous mineral wells during the first Century AD. As word of the sparkling water’s healing properties spread, so did the demand for the product. But herein lay the problem: Carbonated water’s fizz would mysteriously disappear during travel across long distances. Shipping carbonated water was replaced by people traveling to the springs, which of course, only the rich could afford.
Then came the invention of the torpedo bottle.
Jacob Schweppe and his partner Nicholas Paul were the first to use the egg-shaped bottle. The rounded end made it impossible to set the bottle down in an upright position, this kept the cork wet, preventing it from shrinking and allowing the carbonation to escape. The design benefited the merchant in a devious sort of manner. The consumer had to finish the drink before he could lay the bottle down. They’d drink faster-and likely more-as a result.
By 1838, several entrepreneurs added artificial flavors and the drinks popularity took off. Soon there were dozens of bottling plants throughout the United States. The shape of the bottles changed to a flat bottom with improvements made to the stoppers. In 1857, Henry Putnam of Cleveland, Ohio invented a wire retainer for holding the cork in the bottle.
Ginger Ale was first bottled at the onset of the Civil War in 1861 and in 1876 Charles Hires began bottling “root beer”. In 1885, W.B. Morrison, a druggist at the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas, began distributing a beverage called Dr. Pepper. John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola followed a year later and sodas as they were now called, were here to stay.
The torpedoes, used mainly in the bottling of mineral waters, remained popular in Europe until the early 1900s.
Today, we have a small collection of old bottles and other artifacts on display in our rare book store on South Padre Island located at 104 West Pompano St.
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