things that sparkle…

by anzya


The first thing I do when I get home is pour myself a big glass of soda water. And I’ve made midnight trips to the supermarket for nothing else. I mean, why would anyone drink regular water when you can have water that sparkles? This is a question that sometimes keeps me awake at night.

But it took me a while to realise the Jewish connection behind the reason I drink so much soda water. Lately, I realised that I inherited this from my mum, who has a preference for the small individual glass bottles of soda water for their superior “fizz”. And she, in turn, must have inherited this from my grandmother who’s bottom shelf in her pantry is taken up by her never ending supply of the stuff. And it’s not just my crazy family! I’ve heard similar things from (mainly Polish Jewish) friends too.

Mum remembers the coloured glass bottles that turned regular water into delicious soda water using refillable CO2 canisters, as a fixture in every Jewish home in the 70s. But a friend of mine suggested that Eastern European Jews might have grown a taste for fizzy water from drinking mineral water from natural springs.

Then, only today, I discovered this fantastic blog which backs up this idea, Give Me Seltzer. Give Me Seltzer is a blog maintained an “Effervescent Jew” who is writing a book on the “first definitive history of seltzer”. Seltzer is American for soda water, and this name has quite an interesting history.

The origins of the term “seltzer” is apparently the spring water beneath the small German town of Neiderselters which became famous throughout Europe for its medicinal value, sparkle and taste. As the water travelled to other parts of the world, he writes, “the waters occasionally took on modified names, such as ‘Eau de Seltz’ in France and ‘Aqua di Seltz’ in Italy… Within the newly formed United States of America, it was simply known as ‘Seltzer.'”

Give Me Seltzer is a treasure trove of  great bits and pieces of info about soda water and Jewish history. It also explains (better than I can) the mechanics of making soda water: how over the hundreds of years it evolved from mineral springs to giant soda machines to soda fountains to glass bottles, and so on. As well as the Jews who worked in bottling and selling it.

One extract published on the site, for example, is from a Jewish publication 100 years ago, and it creates a compelling picture of the craze for soda water amongst Jews in Manhattan in the 19th century, as well as the difficult lives and conditions of working, migrant Jews in New York at this time:

Seltzer is far and away the most popular drink on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a result of the beverage’s popularity, seltzer bottlers work overtime. But most seltzer drinkers are not familiar with the dangerous realities of working in a seltzer factory. Accidents are daily occurrences, and workers come home with bandaged heads, sliced-up hands and missing eyeballs. The pace in these factories is so fast that the workers don’t have time to check the quality of the bottles. This means that if there is even a hairline crack in the glass, it could easily explode, leaving workers with gashes on their hands and heads, or shards of glass in their eyes. It is known that in the uptown shops, where most of the workers are Christian, the employees are provided with protective masks and gloves. But here, downtown, where the workers are Jews, no protection is available and there are injuries every day.

Another page on the site asks for readers’ “seltzer” stories. One woman remembers her father installing a “huge u-shaped seltzer dispenser” in their kitchen sink, alongside their hot and cold taps! There are stories from old “seltzermen” who bottled and delivered soda water all over Manhattan, and one by a woman who’s grandfather was blinded by an exploding soda water bottle.

I’ll let you go have a look at the blog anyway, as I’m getting thirsty…But P.S, the pic I found above is apparently of Eli Miller of the Eli Miller Seltzer Delivery Service who is still delivering seltzer in antique glass seltzer bottles in Brooklyn, New York to this day.