Ours is the blue planet, and the hallmark of life on Earth is water. But where did this colorless, odorless liquid first come from?
Recent discoveries in astrophysics suggest that water is not native to Earth but rather was imported from the edges of our solar system as ice trapped in comets. Scientists think this water was first delivered here more than four billion years ago. During the meteor shower that gave the Moon most of its craters, Earth received five hundred times more “hits” than its moon did; since the planet has a greater critical mass than its satellite, Earth was also able to hold on to much of the water from the ice.
The ice within comets traps noble gases as well as a cocktail of other chemicals, such as silicates, carbons, and interplanetary dust, so these elements have likely always been present in Earth’s water. (Comets may also have brought amino acids, the building blocks of biogenetic activity, to Earth.) Eventually, water became one of the most important substances on Earth—but for civilizations to advance, it needed to be controlled.
his process began about ten thousand years ago with the development of agriculture, which required capturing, storing, and distributing water. Ample, clean water is needed to sustain human culture, as the earliest, most successful civilizations recognized—after all, humans can live a month without food but only a week without water.
In ancient times, the Egyptians devised a number of filtration systems to make use of the Nile’s silty waters. On the wall of Amenopthis II’s tomb at Thebes (dated 1450 BCE), Nile water is depicted being siphoned through and clarified by a series of clay pots.The Roman Empire built an extensive aqueduct system, an ambitious feat of engineering not surpassed until the twentieth century. At Rome’s peak, eleven aqueducts served the city. The Romans were discriminating about water quality and judged each source by the transparency and taste of its water. Aqua Marcia, which drew water from the Anio River 57 miles (92 km) away, was regarded as the aqueduct with the finest water. Pliny the Elder claimed its water was also the coldest. The next best water came from a spring 14 miles (23 km) to the north, carried by the Aqua Viro, which today ends at the Trevi Fountain. Other aqueducts, such as the Aqua Anio Novus and Aqua Anio Vetus (Tivoli), also fed off the Anio River but were regarded as slightly muddy. Because water is necessary for life, it has spiritual meaning in every culture.
In desert-based religions, for example, water is often a symbol of life or purification. Streams, springs, and spas have a long tradition of religious significance and have been strongly associated with fertility. Many of the Late Bronze Age stone circles of the British Isles, for example, are associated with nearby wells. The shaft of one of these wells near Stonehenge is 100 feet (30.5 m) dee -impressive given the technology of the period. Beads and other small objects found nearby suggest that offerings were made to spirits. Archaeologists believe similar offerings have been made at the Sorgenti di Vicarello spring near Rome since the Stone Age, about ten thousand years ago. Who knew throwing pennies into a fountain in your local shopping mall belongs to a tradition thousands of years old?
The health benefits of water sources formed a less superstitious basis for appreciation as Western civilization moved away from belief in gods and goddesses. Some sources revered by pagans, such as Lourdes, became places of pilgrimage for health purposes and retained some sense of mysticism.
With personal hygiene becoming a concern in late eighteenth century Europe, visits to mineral springs, to drink or bathe in the curative waters, became fashionable. The trend was set by the wealthy, who could afford to “take the waters.” Some of these destinations gained fame as “water hospitals,” among them Contrex in France and Fiuggi in Italy. Since the early eighteenth century, water from both these springs was thought to be beneficial to kidney stones. By the nineteenth century, numerous spa resorts were attracting the infirm and the idle vacationer. Many of these resorts and springs live on today as familiar European brand names: Evian, San Pellegrino, Perrier, Vittel, Vöslauer, Spa, Borsec, Chaudfontaine, Harrogate, and many more.
Many well-known curative waters have been distributed throughout Europe as luxury drinks since ancient Roman times. At first, the waters were typically free; the only cost was shipping. But the owners of the now-famous spas discovered they could earn revenue by selling the water for off-site use. This mineral water was sold in stoneware jars, porcelain demi-jars, and later, glass containers and bottles. Water emerges with the added bonus of natural carbonation from many famous sources (Vichy Catalan, Ferrarelle, Wattwiller, Apollinaris, and Perrier, for example). Artificial carbonation became possible in the late seventeenth century. The southwest German town of Niederselters, source of a naturally carbonated curative water, is the namesake for “Selters Water,” or seltzer, as it came to be known.
Many waters still on the market today have fascinating histories. The reviews in Part II of this book detail each water’s individual story further, but some waters are worth examining here for what they say about the bottled water industry as a whole. Commercial exploitation of water sources began in France. Evian first opened a thermal bath on the private estate of the king of Sardinia in 1824. The king authorized sales of the water two years later, and a company was formed in 1829 to sell the water. It was first bottled in earthenware; Evian did not begin bottling in glass until 1920. While marching on Rome in 218 BCE, Hannibal used the Perrier spring in the south of France.
Use of the spring remained free until 1863, when Napoleon III sold the rights to it. The spring’s namesake, Dr. Louis Perrier, and a local farmer bought the spa site in Vergèze in 1888 (Dr. Perrier gained full control of the site ten years later). Marketing the spring’s naturally carbonated water was the brainchild of St. John Harmsworth, who purchased the spring from Dr. Perrier after recuperating at the spa in 1903. Harmsworth named the spring after Perrier to lend it a sense of medical authority; the iconic green bottle was designed to reflect the Indian clubs or weighted skittles Harmsworth used for sport while convalescing.
Other European countries soon followed the French in selling their waters. England introduced what is thought to be its first bottled water, Malvern, at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Germany’s Apollinaris received a red triangle award—an indication of outstanding quality—at a British trade show in 1892 and later registered the symbol as its trademark. San Pellegrino packed 35,343 bottles during 1899, the Italian water’s first year of sales; by 1908 it was being exported throughout the world, even to remote places like Peru, China, and Australia.
In North America, meanwhile, Native Americans had been bathing together in thermal mineral springs for physical, spiritual, and social health since long before the arrival of European settlers. Many of the waters were thought to have healing powers. Water from Jackson’s Spa in Boston was bottled as early as 1767 and sold as a curative. Mineral water from near Albany, New York, was bottled commercially around 1800, and twenty years later Saratoga Springs sold its first bottled water. Mountain Valley Spring began bottling in 1871.
The bottling of natural mineral waters reached its height in the late nineteenth century; the rising popularity of “soda waters” then began to elbow mineral water out of the market. The latter was at this time sold primarily as a curative and a luxury drink for the wealthy. Clever marketing strategies were applied to reinvigorate the natural bottled water market. Evian again took the lead in the 1950s by selling its water with the powerful claim, “to help lactating mothers and [provide] important minerals for infants.” Targeting a new generation of consumers showed great foresight, as this demographic turned out to be the baby boomers, who took Evian to the top of the bottled mineral water market.