Everything’s better with bitterquelle…
by Ken Previtali
04 March 2015 (R•071415)
Reading the recent post on Hunyadi Janos reminded me of how the details of what we might consider commonplace can be intriguing. What could be more commonplace than water?
Translated from German, bitterquelle means “bitter spring.” Water containing sulfates of magnesium and sodium tastes slightly bitter, and thus Andreas Saxlehner named his Budapest water aptly.
In 1882, a New York City importer, P. Scherer & Co, published “A Complete List of Mineral Waters, Foreign and Domestic with Their Analysis, Uses, and Sources.”
It begins with:
“In presenting this list on mineral waters and products of mineral springs mentioned in this pamphlet, all of which are continually kept on hand by us, we beg leave to especially caution the profession that unless mineral waters are obtained fresh, no dependence is to be placed on their efficacy. We therefore have arranged with our correspondents to receive continual supplies by every steamer, and as it is a specialty of our house, and has been so for the last twenty years . . .”
If you can believe them, the Scherer company kept on hand over 50 different “fresh” mineral waters from America and Europe, including the Hunyadi Janos Bitterquelle which they considered to be “one of the best and cheapest natural aperients.” They stated mineral analysis for Bitterquelle as:
According to current medical research water containing these minerals certainly makes digestion and the normal outcome of digestion much better for those with sluggish constitutions. So, at least one of the curative claims mineral water made by mineral water purveyors over the last 500 years or more was a good one.
But was everything better with “bitter” water? Mineral and spring water bottlers believed it, and so did their hundreds of thousands of customers. And why wouldn’t ginger ale be better if made with mineral or spring water? They believed that too, but let’s back up a bit.
What is mineral water and what is spring water? The US Food and Drug Administration sees it this way:
“Water containing not less than 250 parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids, coming from a source tapped at one or more bore holes or springs, originating from a geologically and physically protected underground water source, may be “mineral water.” Mineral water shall be distinguished from other types of water by its constant level and relative proportions of minerals and trace elements at the point of emergence from the source. . . No minerals may be added to this water.”
And for spring water:
“Water derived from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth may be “spring water.” Spring water shall be collected only at the spring or through a bore hole tapping the underground formation feeding the spring. There shall be a natural force causing the water to flow to the surface through a natural orifice.”
By today’s FDA definitions, it appears that the difference is what is in the water. However, what exactly was in mineral water was disputed mightily by chemists and physicians alike for at least three centuries. But let’s back up a bit again. The healing properties of waters have been touted and promoted since the ancient era. In his book, On Baths and Mineral Waters published in 1831, John Bell, M.D., writes:
Bell goes on to say “The Greeks, whose knowledge of medicine was greater than that of the nations who had been their precursors, paid honours to warm or thermal springs, as a benefaction by the Deity, and dedicated them to Hercules, the god of strength. They made use of them for drink, for bathing, and as topical remedies. Hippocrates tells us of warm springs impregnated with copper, silver, gold, sulphur, bitumen, and nitre; and forbids their use for common purposes.”
The dispute about the efficacy of mineral water as a healing agent began in earnest when in 1756 noted Irish physician Dr. Charles Lucas took issue with the prevailing beliefs on mineral water. Christopher Hamilin, professor of history at University of Notre Dame wrote that Dr. Lucas “had railed at the pretension and corruption of mineral water physicians and chemists in similar treatises on mineral waters. The ‘most pompous’ of the numerous tracts on mineral waters were written, Lucas noted, by men ‘living and practicing upon the spot, not always competent judges of the subject, but always interested in the fame of the particular water, which was their idol.’ “
Professor Hamlin continues that “while Lucas was willing to accept in principle the claim that mineral waters had medicinal potency, he felt that their use was completely devoid of legitimate medical rationale: physicians were viciously attacking one another all the while being ignorant of the properties of waters. At Bath [England] and elsewhere wealthy invalids were fleeced by mercenary physicians, yet they ignored the advice they paid for, insisting on taking the waters without regard to season or constitution. . . Ultimately the spas were nothing but gathering grounds for sycophants, Lucas concluded, and it was futile to wish otherwise. ‘Forms, fashions, and flattery rule the world,’ Lucas wrote, ‘and a man may as well refuse to eat modish stinking wild fowl or venison at a great man’s feast, be insensible to the beauty of his mistress, hound or horse, or disrelish any other prevailing vice or folly, as [rather than] decline drinking of his favourite spring, or deny having received benefit of it.’ “
That was pretty strong criticism by Dr. Lucas, but the many hundreds of books, articles and dissertations published on mineral water reveal that he was correct. But it didn’t matter, because mineral water was big, big business. Even if you couldn’t get to or afford one of the many spas that had “sprung” up around mineral water localities, by the 1870s you could get the bottled item from a local spring or nearly anywhere it could arrive by boat or rail.
Before chemical analysis of mineral water was documented by Swedish chemist Torbern Olof Bergman (1735 -1784) there was no scientific consensus on a valid methodology. Chemists and physicians welcomed a “documented” way to analyze water content to support curative claims. In 1809, Valentine Seaman, M. D., “One of the Surgeons of the New York Hospital” wrote a 138-page book on Saratoga and Ballston Spa waters. His first words acknowledged Bergman:
Dr. Bell in his 1831 mineral water treatise continued to support the validity of Bergman’s analytic methods: “To the celebrated chemist of Upsala, more than to any other, are we indebted for introducing system and clearness in the analysis . . .” Even with an accepted analytic method, Dr. Bell was a cautious administrator of the waters, and clearly knew that many imbibers were victims of their habits as he quoted this telling ditty:
“The stomach crammed with every dish, A tomb of roast and boiled, and flesh and fish, Where bile and wind, and phlegm, and acid jar, And all the man is one intestine war.”
It’s no wonder that the aperient (laxative) effects of magnesium and sodium sulphate-laden “bitter” water made many believers.
145 years after Dr. Lucas raised issues of medical quackery, criticisms of the miracles of mineral water were still being published. In his 1899 book “Mineral Waters of the United States, James K. Crook, M.D. says:
However, no amount of science could overcome the will to believe the medical claims, nor keep throngs of “invalids” flocking to spas around the US for another 35 years. The great depression and resulting loss of wealth led to many spas’ demise. The panacea so many mineral waters offered could not cure bankruptcy.
But let’s get back to the commonplace again: Ginger Ale. Ginger was long known for its healthful properties and beneficial effects on digestion and circulation. That knowledge was perhaps concurrent with the very early beliefs in mineral water cures; in fact, during Roman times ginger was as good as gold.
The long-standing aura around ginger’s medicinal value was transferred to ginger ale when it was introduced from Ireland in 1852. By the 1860s the mineral water business was booming and bottlers quickly discovered adding the vastly popular ginger ale into their bottling line would provide a new stream of sales. After all, what could be better than healthful ginger ale made with their version of “bitterquelle”?
Many mineral and spring water bottlers produced ginger ale. Here’s a gallery of just a few from 1880 to 1959: