Victorian soda maker
Sarah: Hey, there! I'm Sarah A. Chrisman, the author of the Tales of Chetzemoka, and this is my husband Gabriel.
Gabriel: Hello, everyone!
Sarah: And today we're going to tell you a bit about soda culture in history that comes up at the end of my book, A Trip and A Tumble.
Sarah: At the end of Book V in my Tales of Chetzemoka series, A Trip and A Tumble, there's a scene involving a pretty nifty piece of Victorian technology that was reasonably common at the end of the nineteenth-century but has largely been forgotten and isn't very well known any more. It's called a gasogene, and it's a device for making carbonated water at home, to use in sodas.
Sarah: A lot of people might not necessarily realize that humans have been drinking carbonated beverages for pretty much as long as we've been around on this planet. The first soda waters were naturally occurring mineral waters which were carbonated by the earth's chemical and geological activities. Since Ancient times and throughout human history, natural springs have often been considered sacred spaces. The waters of these springs were thought to have special healing properties, and the seemingly magical waters which emerged at certain places and contained sparkling bubbles were considered especially helpful for improving or maintaining health. Besides their religious and medical importance, mineral springs also served important social functions as well. The Ancient Romans built elaborate infrastructures around their baths, some of which still exist today. Throughout the centuries, people have made pilgrimages to mineral springs for a variety of reasons: some religious, some health-related, some social. For many people it's often been a combination of all of these. Spa culture has been important for a long time, and it's big business for the locations blessed enough to have a natural source of pure, sparkling water. Not every town is lucky enough to have such a spring, though, and not every individual can make a pilgrimage to places that do. Many famous spas worked out that they could help far-flung humanity, and coincidentally increase their profits) by bottling their special waters and selling them abroad. It was only a matter of time before human ingenuity worked out ways to create sparkling water from waters which were naturally still. The earliest machines for carbonating water and making seltzer were large and elaborate, but smaller versions were eventually produced, and by the end of the nineteenth-century equipment was available for families to make their own seltzer water at home. And this brings us back to the gasogene.
Gabriel: Okay! So, we're going to use one tablespoon of acid. And the most common type was tartaric acid here, because it doesn't add much flavor.
Sarah: Tartaric acid is made from grapes, and is a non-alcoholic by-product of the wine industry. After grapes are mashed up and the grape juice poured off, a thin white crystal accumulates around the edges of the vats from the acidity of the grapes. And this white crystalline substance is tartaric acid.
Gabriel: And then, baking soda.
Sarah: And as anyone who has ever combined baking soda and vinegar can tell you: when you combine an acid and a base, they produce gas! Since the tartaric acid and the baking soda were both dry powders when we mixed them together, they won't start reacting until we get them wet. And that will happen when we turn over the gasogene.
Gabriel: So this is what we're using as a seal, right on here. The connector goes right through here.
Sarah: So this is the coupler that links the top and the bottom of the gasogene. And it's got string with beeswax as the seal; and then here are the holes for the gas to come in, and here are the holes for the gas to go out.
Gabriel: And this threads down over the top. Now the reason we have this adapter piece is because the threads on the original gasogene are very worn out, and this adapter piece is matched to the worn threads on both sides and allows us to get a better seal.
Sarah: The top of the apparatus at this point is filled up with ordinary, non-sparkling, still water, which very soon, through the magic of the gasogene, will become selzter!
Gabriel: The next step is to thread these together upside down. Are you ready?
Sarah: When he turns the gasogene right-side up again, the water will dribble down through the lower holes in the coupler. As soon as the dry tartaric acid and baking soda get wet, a chemical reaction will start that will force gas into the water in the top chamber under pressure.
Gabriel: Okay: now we've got everything together upside down. The next step here is to flip it over, which causes water to go in— oops! Let's shut that all the way off first… Yup, gettin' our first few bubbles here.
Sarah: This antique gasogene was made in the 1880's. It leaks a little by now, but it's only fair to point out that by the time I'm over 130 years old, I'll probably leak, too!
Sarah: Back to a bit of history. The earliest artificial seltzers tried to recreate the chemical compositions of soda waters from famous spas. Recipe books written for apothecaries and druggists who'd gotten into the soda water trade gave instructions for imitating Vichy water or Saratoga water by adding very exact proportions of minerals like magnesium sulphate or sodium bicarbonate. From here it was a small step to adding other medicines to seltzer, and druggists started adding tincture of valerian, or potassium phosphate which was recommended to settle an upset stomach. Sweeteners were added to make bitter medicines more palatable, and druggists played around with different formulas to optimize the attractiveness of those drinks to the public. They were so effective that people started considering sodas a fun treat and not just a medicine. This wasn't as revolutionary of a concept as one might think, since after all it ties back into the ages-old connection between sparkling beverages and social activities. In the late nineteenth-century, Temperance advocates were especially strong proponents of soda culture, because they wanted to steer people away from saloons and encourage them to do their socializing in healthier, more innocent environments. Cyclists tended to be big fans of soda as well, for the obvious reason that alcohol and cycling don't mix very well, but also because many of the sodas involving high-energy sugar and nutrient-rich milk or cream were the perfect energy drinks for active cyclists. There have been various ways of producing homemade carbonated beverages over the centuries; bottled soda water and gasogene soda water were considered especially healthy because there was no fermentation involved with them. Specially formulated soda flavorings like those available at soda counters, though, could be very complicated and tricky to produce at home. So companies and druggists offered concentrated syrups for popular beverages. People then added these to bottled seltzer, or to their own homemade gasogene selzter. Then of course, one could add other tasty ingredients as well. The first cream sodas were just that: cream sodas. And milk and soda was considered a particularly good drink for cyclists. And then there are all the little accoutrements that go with sodas and make them extra fun. When sodas became really popular in the 1890's, special soda straws were definitely a thing. This one has got some nice filigree on it, I'll show you a close up soon, and very, very recently these have made a comeback as fancy "maté straws" or "tea straws", but people were using these in sodas in the nineteenth-century in a lot of different places. Also in the late nineteenth-century was the invention of the paper drinking straw, which was cheaper than these to say the least, and more disposeable. These are also making a comeback in certain cities.
Sarah: Traditions of sodas being little luxuries and an innocent way to socialize persisted into the twentieth-century, and of course are still with us in the twenty-first. The next time you indulge in a bubbly beverage, remember: you're tasting history!
Acid Phosphate (for adding to sodas): Extinct Chemical Company http://www.artofdrink.com/shop
Tonic (for adding to sodas): Bradley's Tonic Co. http://kinatonic.com/about-us/
Free digital copy of an 1888 book for people who ran soda counters: A Treatise on Beverages by Charles Herman Sulz http://tinyurl.com/y7m8ezqg
Free digital copy of an 1888 recipe book for soda syrups and flavorings: Sulz's Compendium of Flavoings, Containing Complete Directions for Making, Clarifying, and Judiciously Applying Every Known Variety of Flavoring Extracts and Essences; also for Preparing, Purifying and Testing Plain and Compound Syrups of Every Grade http://tinyurl.com/y7j4eaaf