The Bizarre History of Soda


Everyone knows soda is now the route of all evil. Media, government, fitness fanatics have long told us that sugary soda drinks are one of the main culprits for the modern obesity epidemic. In fact, so strongly do people feel about soda that several States have attempted to ban or tax soda into oblivion.

It’s hard then to imagine a world in which soda was once seen as medicine, as a way of helping the feeble and infirm get back to full health. Remarkably that’s exactly was happening in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Yes you read that correctly, soda was once seen as a way to heal various illnesses, including obesity by the way! Go figure.

The Birth of Bubbles


Soda’s creation was a long time in the making with it’s formative history spanning centuries.

Doctors and health practicioners had long prescribed mineral waters for their supposedly curative purposes. Indeed, many health professions specifically cited the natural carbonation found in mineral waters as the main element in tackling illness and before soda came along people were already experimenting with flavoured drinks such as water with lemon or lime juice to mimic the natural restorative power of carbonated water.

You can imagine their glee when Dr. Joseph Priestley, the man who discovered oxygen, found a way to duplicate nature’s carbonation process. In layman’s terms, Dr. Joseph found a way to create the world’s first soda drinks.

It was Priestley’s 1772 invention that inadvertantly helped launch the soda industry but it wasn’t smooth sailing after 1772. No far from it.

A Long Process


Although Johann Jacob Schweppe, a Swiss scientist and founder of the Schweppes company, soon improved Priestley’s process by developing a hand cranked carbonation device in the 1780s, manufacturers were still faced with a serious problem. The drinks weren’t maintaining their fizz and glass bottles, the best means of storing such drinks, were not feely available.

It took until 1832, when inventor John Matthews developed system for carbonating water that could be either sealed in a bottle or pumped through a soda fountain.

By the end of the 1830s pharmacists across the United States were using soda waters as a means of dispensing medication to resistant patients. Soda flavours helped to mask the taste of bitter medicines like quinine and iron, as back then most medication was taken in liquid form. If anyone has ever tried to take Iron orally, they’ll appreciate why sodas were introduced.

In fact, so resistant had scores of patients been with regards taking their medicine that hundreds of pharmacists had resorted to mixing the medicines with alcohol. When soda water came along, medicines became a beautiful trio of alcohol, medicine and soda water. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and all that.

Surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly depending on your opinion of the US market forces, the ingredients of these flavoured medicines soon came under scrutiny, in particular sarsaparilla and sassafras.

Helping or hurting?


Sarsaparilla and sassafras are plant roots and thanks to Constantine Rafinesque, they became one of the key ingredients in many of the earlier soda waters. Rafinesque’s 1830 treatise on medical botany saw the plant roots identified as a means of purging and clearing the body. Rafinesque even went so far as to cite Native American’s reverence for the plant roots as proof that they had a curative history.

Pharmacists soon latched on to the idea and by the 1870s root beers containing sassafras were being sold as general ‘cure alls’ to the public. In 1876, Charles Hires, a pharmacist based in Philadelphia began selling root beer in small glass bottles, ushering in a new dawn for soda drinks.

The ubiquity of sassafras in soda drinks was not without controversy however as many patients found that they more soda water they drank containing the plant root, the sicker they became. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered that sassafras oil contained safrol, a sustance linked to various cancers and liver disorders.

But sassafras wasn’t the only ingredient used by manufactures as sarsaparilla, another plant root often found its way into sodas. As early as the 1830s sarsaparilla drinks were being sold as cure alls for anything and everything from jaundice to digestive trouble and even corpulence (def: the state of being fat). Yes soda was being prescribed for obesity! Unsurprisingly sassafras did little to help patients.

Cocaine Blues


If you were consuming a lot of soda in the early years, sarsaparilla and sassafras were the least of your concerns however as many sodas initially contained cocaine. When soda’s popularity began to take off, pharmacists soon began making soda mixtures with stronger drugs known as known as ‘nervines.’

What counted as a ‘nervine’ you may wonder? Well anything ranging from strychnine to cocaine to heroin. Cocaine and heroin…in soda? Were they high? Well arguably yes, but to be fair to the pharmacists, at that time cocaine was viewed as a wonder drug with little side effects and huge benefits. Adding it to soda water seemed to make sense. It seemed to make a huge amount of sense for the manufacturers of Coca-Cola who used to add about .01grams of cocaine to each beverage.

It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that pharmacists began to realise that their was little medical benefit to selling various soda waters to the sick and infirm. Instead soda waters began to be sold as treats, a position they’ve managed to maintain for over a century and a half. Interestingly, it took roughly another fifty years for manufacturers to stop adding drugs like cocaine to their products leaving us with the healthy and pure sugar (ahem!).

So if you thought soda was bad for you nowadays, just imagine a sugary, alcoholic drink laced with cocaine!

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