By Craig Lind
When Joseph Priestley first infused water with gassy bubbles in 1767, he could not have imagined how popular carbonated (or aerated) water would become. Invented as a medicinal product, it was not obvious that it would emerge from 18th-century laboratories to become a must have for fashionable Victorian consumers. This rise in popularity was only possible through a combination of technological innovation and the Barnumesque salesmanship of Johann Jacob Schweppe. Like all good stories, this one begins by the sea.
Robb & Son, Purveyors of Aerated Waters, Dundee, Scotland
On one beautiful summer afternoon last year, I found a swing-top stopper on the foreshore of the River Tay. I was delighted to discover faded lettering still clear enough to read after over a hundred years in the ocean. It read Robb & Son, and I saw an opportunity to find out all I could about this old company name.
A quick search in the City of Dundee business directory for 1809–1912 revealed two listings for Robb & Son, purveyors of aerated water. The city of Dundee, which lies across the river from where I found the stopper, was once a thriving international port and site of Scottish shipbuilding. The first address is located in the heart of Dundee’s main shopping and business areas, and it is likely that this was a store for the family business. The second address is in North Street, a location that hosts a number of small scale industrial buildings and sheds to this day; here is likely where Robb & Son manufactured, stored, and distributed their aerated waters.
In any case, with two business addresses in the city, Robb & Son must have been very successful as purveyors of carbonated, flavored drinks. With hindsight, it is not surprising that they enjoyed a successful and lucrative business in the city of Dundee—carbonated drinks were extremely popular in the Victorian period. But what gave rise to the popularity of aerated waters, and made this medicinal product so widely desired and enjoyed?
Captain Cook and mass manufactured soda
Before it was discovered by Edinburgh physician James Lind that scurvy could be dealt with by encouraging shipmen to consume citrus—a practice that led to British people being known as “limeys”—scurvy was a considerable problem on long voyages, and it cost many a sailor his life. Various things had been tried to stem outbreaks of scurvy, and for a short time it was believed that aerated water might cure the disease.
Working under the false promise that scurvy was caused by a lack of “fixed air” (carbon dioxide) inside the body, Captain James Cook had his ships fitted out with the apparatus and chemicals needed to infuse water with carbon dioxide. In 1768, aerated drinks began to be used in the fight against scurvy. The approach was doomed to failure—scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, not a lack of “fixed air.” As medical knowledge advanced, it became clear that aerated water was not the medical wonder product that physicians had once assumed. As it faded from use in medicine, a something strange happened: people started to drink it for enjoyment!
Mass production and reliable storage
Joseph Schweppe opened the way for the mass consumption of aerated waters when he invented the technology to carbonize water on a large scale in the 1780s and founded the Schweppes Company. The machine worked by forcing carbonic acid into water under pressure to produce carbonated water. In terms of productive capacity, it was a vast step forwards from Priestley’s method. The shift from laboratory to factory production was essential for aerated water’s economical viability as a product. While Schweppes machinery made sure there would be a plentiful supply of carbonated water, storage continued to be problematic.
When Schweppes set out to become the name behind aerated drinks, the earthenware vessels that were used to store liquids of this kind were just not up to the job. Despite being glazed, earthenware bottles remained porous, so full of tiny holes and channels that gas easily escaped, leaving the liquid inside fizz-less. Although Schweppes had pioneered the mass production of aerated water, the technology needed to store and his products without them becoming flat was yet to be discovered
As these new carbonated drinks became ever more desirable, glassware manufacturers responded by producing bottles that could be capped to contain the high pressure that would keep these drinks fizzy. Schweppes was impressed with the cork-capped torpedo design that William Hamilton invented in 1814. The design was ingenious—the rounded bottom forced the bottles to be stored flat on their sides, keeping the liquid inside the bottles in contact with the cork. This meant that the corks stayed hydrated and swollen tight in the bottle neck, ensuring air tight storage and delightful fizz for consumers.
Other designs emerged around this time and many were just as ingenious as Hamilton’s Torpedo. Hiram Codd’s bottle design of 1842 elegantly used inside pressure to tightly lock the bottle. Instead of a cork, a glass marble, inside a specially designed chamber in the bottle neck, was pushed against a rubber seal by the force of gas inside the bottle. The design was extremely popular, not least so with children who smashed these bottles to get the marble inside, and they remain very popular with beachcombers who seek the very collectible clear glass Codd marbles.
Five years after Codd offered his invention, another solution to the problem of air-tight bottle sealing was presented. In 1847, Charles de Quillfeldt created the swing-top stopper. Swing-top stoppers were held in place by a leverage system that pressed them tightly against a rubber seal on the rim of a bottle neck. They do such a good job of sealing pressurized bottles that they are still used to this day. Thanks to these technological advances, we can say that the swing top we found came from a bottle made some time between 1874 and 1912.
Having solved the problems of mass production, bottling, storage, and distribution, Schweppes had yet to persuade the public that aerated water was a desirable treat worth spending money on.
That’s when Schweppes displayed a streak of showmanship and entrepreneurialism that would have made P. T. Barnum proud. When it was announced that a Great Exhibition would be held in London in 1851, Schweppes jumped at the opportunity to promote their product and name. By the time the Great Exhibition closed its doors to the public, six million visitors—around one third of the UK population at the time— had walked its halls and visited its attractions.
Schweppes could not have known how popular the exhibition would be, but the company took a gamble and paid the grand sum of £5,500 pounds to take part—around three-quarters of a million pounds today. This vast sum of money bought Schweppes display space and, crucially, exclusive rights to sell refreshments during the entire event, which lasted six months. With daily attendance figures between 50,000 to 100,000 people, the exclusivity that had cost Schweppes a small fortune proved to be a very wise investment.
Schweppes sold 1.1 million bottles of aerated waters during the event and left a mark on the industry that remains to this day. The name, Schweppes, and the product, carbonated drinks, remain firmly and irrevocably connected.
It’s tempting to wonder what carbonated drinks might have been made had it not been for Schweppes and the other technological pioneers who risked great losses to promote and popularize bubbly water. Without Schweppes’ gamble, would we have found a swing-top stopper with the name Robb & Son printed upon it—a name still visible after more than one hundred years washing back and forth in the ebb and tide of the River Tay? Objects like this Robb & Son stopper offer us a fantastic starting point to discover the history of something that is a part of our world today.
Craig Lind and his wife, Nicole, are on YouTube as Scottish Mudlarking. They blend beachcombing, history, and jewelry making in their weekly family-friendly videos.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2021 issue.