Jews and Seltzer in the Days Before Scarlett

From British royalty to Jewish migrants across the Atlantic, carbonated water had various public faces before there was an actress called Scarlett Johansson.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Britain's King William IV was no Black Widow, but the third son of George III and the brother of George IV was the public face of carbonated water long before there was a company called SodaStream or an actress called Scarlett Johansson.

Fizz seekers have presumably been drinking effervescent water from time immemorial, as it flows from natural springs around the world. But as a sought-after consumer product, it can be traced to the 18th century, when the spurious medical science of the day touted water impregnated with carbon dioxide as a curative. Of these ancient springs, the most famous is the spring in Selters, a tiny town in central Germany, where carbonated mineral water has been sold since the 1720s.

More than 100 years later, it would be this town’s name that would become "seltzer," the generic name for carbonated water in parts of the United States.

During the 18th century, sparkling water was an expensive product, out of the reach of most people. What was needed was a way to artificially manufacture it and thus lower its price. This process was invented in 1767 by Joseph Priestley, the Englishman credited with discovering oxygen. Priestley’s original process involved mixing water with carbon dioxide, which he termed “fixed air,” produced as a byproduct of the fermentation process. Five years later, he published a paper titled “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air,” introducing the world to cheap carbonated water.

A decade later, German-born Swiss watchmaker Johann Jacob Schweppe improved on Priestley’s process, and in 1783 founded the Schweppes Company in Geneva. It was Schweppe who gave the product the name sodawasser ("soda water" in German), so named because of the sodium salts he added to mimic the flavor of natural carbonated mineral water. In 1892 Schweppe moved his operations to London, the world’s largest metropolis at the time. This venture was not very successful and a few years later the company was sold, though it has retained his name to this day.

The breakthrough in the company’s success came in 1831, when King William IV took to drinking soda water — the ultimate celebrity endorsement — and the drink became extremely popular. (After all, it was a beverage fit for a king.)

The main problem was that once you opened the bottle, the carbonation would go flat, leaving consumers with more blah than bubbles. This was overcome in the first two decades of the 19th century with the invention of the soda siphon, a pressurized glass bottle of glass or metal that pushes the pressurized liquid out with the press of a valve. With this new technology, the drink grew in popularity over the century. The siphon was invented independently in both France and the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in New York City in the late 19th century, the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the Lower East Side was taking place. These new arrivals took to drinking soda water, perhaps because it was the cheapest beverage on the market except for water, gaining it the nickname “two cents plain.” Its usual name, though, was "seltzer." The neighborhood filled with soda fountains and business devoted to selling carbonated beverages, mostly flavored and sweetened, as well as an large number of street vendors who sold and filled soda siphons for the ever-thirsty public. More often than not, the Lower East Side's soda fountain proprietors, street vendors and patrons were Jewish.

The last two decades saw the invention of the world’s best-known sodas. Most famous of these was Coca-Cola, invented by the Georgia pharmacist Colonel John Pemberton. Less well known, and invented only a few years later in Brooklyn, in 1890, was the quintessential Jewish soda invented by Jewish candy maker Louis Aster: the egg cream. The beverage is quite the misnomer, as it contains no egg or cream but is a mixture of carbonated water, chocolate syrup and milk (see recipe below).

The 20th century wasn’t kind to seltzer. First, the two world wars led to anti-German sentiment, and the name "seltzer" lost popularity in some places, in favor of "soda water" or the more accurate "carbonated water." Second, the sale of mass-produced flavored sodas in bottles and cans quickly overtook the sale of plain old unsweetened seltzer. Later, in the second half of the 20th century, bottled soda water could be found in supermarkets for so little that buying a siphon became a less and less financially sound idea. Over time, the number of soda fountains and siphon street vendors gradually dwindled. In April, The New York Times ran an article on New York’s last seltzer man: a Jewish man named Eli Miller.

Meanwhile, in something of a throwback, another innovation in the making of carbonated water gained popularity throughout the 20th century, reaching new heights over the past two decades: home carbonation products allowing people to make soda water from the comfort of their own home. This technology was invented in 1903 by Guy Gilbey, a gin distiller. It became a consumer product in 1955 and was marketed by a subsidiary of A.W. Gilbey Gin called SodaStream.

These products became increasingly popular in the 1970s and ‘80s. In 1985, SodaStream was purchased by Cadbury Schweppes. In 1998, SodaStream was sold once again, this time to Soda-Club, the exclusive distributor of SodaStream products in Israel since 1978. Since then, the world’s greatest distributor of home carbonated water makers has been an Israeli company.

It was company founder Peter Weissburgh who decided to build SodaStream's main production plant on the West Bank settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim in the 1990s, before SodaStream was taken over by Fortismo Capital Fund, its current owners. Company CEO Daniel Birnbaum, whom Fortismo appointed to head the firm in 2007, told The Forward he would not have chosen to build a facility in the West Bank, but will not bow to political pressure from the movement to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel — which has strongly criticized Scarlett Johansson for becoming the "global brand ambassador" of a company that operates on an Israeli settlement — because of its loyalty to the approximately 500 Palestinians who are among the plant's 1,300 employees.

Egg cream recipe


Carbonated water

¼ cup Milk

3 tbsp Chocolate syrup - Fox’s U-Bet chocolate flavor syrup is the original but really brand will do


1. Pour the milk into a tall glass.

2. Add the chocolate syrup

3. Add the carbonated water slowly leaving half an inch at the top for foam.

4. Stir vigorously.

5. Serve with a straw.

William IV and Scarlett Johansson. Photos by Dreamstime and AP
Designer Yves Béha and a SodaStream machine designed by him.Credit: Courtesy

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