Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Market Plain Water

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, with a photo by Dodgerton Skillhaus at

Some people, apparently concerned about their children’s health, want to discourage Americans from drinking soda pop, which our ancestors started drinking as a “healthy and innocent” alternative to wine or beer.

It is never easy to overturn established customs. Americans have been drinking sweetened and flavored water since colonial days; among their other hardships, the first English immigrants ran out of wine and beer and were forced to drink healthier liquids, so they invented “switchel,” a homemade concoction of molasses or maple syrup and vinegar shaken up in springwater. Switchel was apparently enjoyed by laborers in the heat of the day, but not considered a real taste treat. A little fruit juice, or even peel, mixed with sweetened water was more satisfactory, and lemonade became the classic American picnic and party beverage—although iced tea and iced coffee were popular with those who could afford the ice. Then carbonated water was discovered to make lemonade more interesting, and root beer easier to store...and thus soda pop was born. At no period in American history has either plain water, wine, or beer been as much used as sweetened and flavored forms of water.

However, during the American colonial period Europeans were rediscovering the medicinal benefits of water, both internally and externally. The Enlightenment, and contact with Native Americans, were breaking up long-ingrained fears of bathing; visits to places that were said to have especially “healthy” springs and public baths were coming into fashion. And Edith Sitwell, in her study of English Eccentrics, found records of a family friend of King George II who seriously promoted water.

Rather than trying to discourage Englishmen from drinking their beer, ale, port, and stout, the charmingly eccentric Matthew Robinson, Lord Rokeby, let himself be seen “bathing” and swimming in the ocean until he became chilled enough to need “to be withdrawn forcibly from the water” by a “favourite servant,” whom, however, Rokeby discouraged from swimming because “he was gaudily dressed, and not inured to wet.” (Rokeby usually wore washable suits.) After debating this point for some time Rokeby and the servant compromised by building a glass-roofed bath-house which, observers noted, “rendered [water] tepid by the rays of the sun only.”

Lord Rokeby was sometimes described as a hermit. By this people apparently meant a bachelor, since he maintained the usual number of servants at the family manor and received many visitors who went out of their way “for a sight of this extraordinary character.” Although he claimed “birds and beasts, and thoughts” as his friends, he did nothing to discourage the visitors. Some said his worst fault was longwindedness, and he didn’t mind making a spectacle of himself; at home he ordered his food cooked in water, which he drank, but when dining with people he had roast meat served “floating at his elbows” in a bathtub. He entertained his rich and influential relatives in the style to which they were accustomed, even going to church when visited by his cousin the Archbishop, although he didn’t care for organized religion. He wrote, published, voted, went to court when summoned by Royalty, and even, when young, liked women. He was, perhaps surprisingly, remembered as a public-spirited statesman. But he did like peace and privacy.

In fact, he was not content to encourage people to see for themselves that bathing and drinking water didn’t hurt him with smiles, nods, waves, or cheerful conversation. He built water fountains beside the road between his manor and the beach, and “was accustomed to bestow a few half-crown pieces...for any water-drinkers he might happen to find partaking of his favourite beverage, which he never failed to recommend with peculiar force and persuasion.” Whether he did this personally or, as was customary at the time, ordered the servant to do it, may have depended on the status of the travellers he wanted to encourage.

A childhood case of measles may have produced this eccentricity...Lord Rokeby seemed to gain nothing by promoting the use of water, but some people who have become hypersensitive after a fever find relief in long, frequent baths.

In any case, if Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Obama, and their ilk seriously want Americans to drink more plain water, I suggest that they hire a few people to circulate around their cities handing twenty-dollar bills to water-drinkers. This would relieve the embarrassment their stupid, heavy-handed gestures have caused some Americans to feel about drinking water when we actually want to drink something that is not sweet and fruity, but don’t want to be seen as sympathetic to nagging and “nannyism” in any way.