Sunday, August 26, 2012

Drink Up! Non-Alcoholic Beverage Options Aboard Cunard, 1840-1870

A beautiful collection of old-fashioned bottles, courtesy of the Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website (
Most of my research has been devoted to transatlantic ship menus and how they might help us draw some conclusions about culture at sea in the nineteenth century.  This week, however, I focused more on drinks, soft drinks and mineral water in particular.
My research was made easy because the Cunard line included a generic Bill of Fare in its Official Guide and Album so that passengers had an idea of what would be served for breakfast and dinner during voyage.  On the back side of the Bill of Fare was the drinks list. 

Except for tea and coffee, passengers paid for bottled water and soft drinks, just as they paid for wine, spirits, and beer.  For wine, the steward tallied up what the passenger owed, and he paid before leaving the ship. For beers, soft drinks, and bottled water, the passenger paid out of pocket when he ordered.  Part of this practice continues today in the cruise ship industry, where aside from coffee, tea, and tap water, all other drinks are charged to the passenger on most ships. 

For sixpence, a passenger could order a bottle of soda water, ginger ale, lemonade, English seltzer, kali potass, or sarsaparilla.  For one shilling, Congress water and German seltzer were on offer.
Many of these are of course still known and remain popular, particularly lemonade, sarsaparilla (known today as root beer), and ginger ale.  People today do not look to these drinks for their health benefits, but in the nineteenth century, these drinks and indeed the waters and the kali potass were all considered medicinal and/or necessary to good health. 

Take ginger ale.  When I was a child and our family traveled by plane, my mother always ordered me a ginger ale.  The drink was special, given to me only on such trips or on rare occasions when I was sick with the stomach flu. Passengers aboard a Cunard ship sipped ginger ale for the same reason:  ginger was considered an excellent cure for seasickness, motion sickness, or upset stomachs. 

Sarsaparilla, which in the United States was commonly called sassparilla, and probably at that time brewed from the plant Smilax reaelii, was also considered to have medicinal properties, rather like a tonic to aid in good health.  It is likely that Cunard’s sarsaparilla had a small amount of alcohol, given the brewing process that was used during that time period.    
This leads to Cunard’s offer of soda water.  I discovered from Webster’s Dictionary that soda water is “a weak solution of sodium bicarbonate with some acid to cause effervescence.”  Joseph Priestley is credited with creating soda water for drinking purposes, and in his paper, “Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air” (1772), he explained the chemical process and how to make soda water oneself.  Further research suggests that soda water was first sold as a medicine, often with added flavored syrup added to make it more palatable.  On its own, the sodium salts  in the water imitated the healthful minerals and natural effervescence found in the more expensive option, natural mineral water.  I don’t know if the soda water served aboard Cunard ships was flavored.  If not, then it would have been akin to the club soda that people buy today.  If the soda water was flavored, then it would have been the precursor to cola-flavored beverages that people universally adore today.

For many years, soda water was thought to be excellent for health, even if flavored with syrup.  As this quite horrific advertisement suggests (courtesy of and Food Inc, that association lasted well into the 20th century!  

What, then, was Congress water? What accounted for its higher price of one shilling?  Congress water came from Congress Spring at Saratoga, New York one of those very popular resorts where wealthy people came to take the waters in the 1800s, and which became famous for its race course.  To find out more about Congress water, I relied on a wonderful website, Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information, created by the United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the Society for Historic Archeology.  The below photo of a Congress water bottle is taken from that site (

Congress water was bottled as early as 1809 and was used for an assortment of ills, including an upset stomach. 
Similar to Congress water would have been German seltzer and English seltzer waters.  German seltzer water, as its higher price on the Cunard menu indicates, was universally recognized for its health-giving and medicinal properties.  The springs in the area of Selters in Hesse, Germany, where the name “seltzer” is thought to derive, had a particularly high concentration of sodium bicarbonate, and hence, was offered as Cunard’s most natural or pure “soda water.”  As with Saratoga Springs, Selters was also famous for its spa. At this point, I am uncertain as to where Cunard’s English seltzer water originated, although perhaps Bath would be a good bet.  

Of all the medicinal and health-giving options available on Cunard’s beverage menu, Kali Potass took the most amount of research.  While I figured out that “Potass” referred to potassium, the information I found on kali potassium was largely written by chemists for chemists, a discipline well outside my realm.  From what I can determine, kali potass was a tonic thought to reduce stress or nervousness due to anxiety. 
The Cunard drinks menu suggests that crossing the North Atlantic was no pleasure trip for most involved.  The bar on Cunard vessels opened at 6:00 am, well before the dining saloon was open for breakfast, and it was the last public space to shut its doors each night.  Drinks were of course available in the saloon for meals and likely served to passengers outside in their deck chairs if weather permitted.  While the food menu for Cunard became more sophisticated and lavish by the end of the nineteenth century, suggesting the glamor and the thrill of an ocean voyage, the drinks menu suggested that passengers were desperate to spend much of their time forgetting their anxiety and sickness, and at the very least partaking of strengthening tonics, sodas, and mineral waters to keep up their courage until docking.

Here's a recipe I developed for homemade lemonade.  It might have been similar to what Cunard offered its passengers:

Equipment:  1 half-gallon glass jug
Ingredients:  3 lemons, 1/2 cup white sugar, 1/4 t. instant yeast, filtered room-temperature water
Method:  Juice the lemons and strain the juice into a jug.  If you wish for your lemonade to be more tart, add more lemon juice.  Do not use bottled.  Add the white sugar and 1/4 t. yeast and filtered water.  Screw the cap on the jug and shake gently to dissolve the sugar and yeast.  Put it in a cool, dark place for 24 hours.  Gently shake the contents to stir it around. Refrigerate for 12-24 hours.  Be careful when you take of the lid! 

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