While it seems simple enough to credit (or blame) bottled water’s recent popularity on clever marketing, the industry also has a foundation in a history of “deeply ingrained, cultural reverence for pure water,” according to Dr. Francis H. Chapelle, a hydrologist with USGS and author of the book Wellsprings: A Natural History Of Bottled Spring Waters.
Bottled water has been around a long time, and not just as small mom-and-pop operations. Bottled water in America predates the country’s independence, with records of water bottled and sold from Jackson’s Spa in Boston in 1767. The bottled water industry really took off in the beginning of the nineteenth century when new glass technologies made the cost of a bottle affordable and practical for mass production and consumption. By 1856, over 7 million bottles were being produced annually at Saratoga Springs, one of the most popular early bottled water sources, and selling for up to $1.75 per pint.
Much like today, when bottled water’s popularity is motivated largely by health concerns, consumers in the mid-1800s believed that bottled spring water had health benefits that bordered on the medicinal. But also like today, the historical popularity of bottled water was further due to an associated image and status. Then, as now, “people like their water to be clean and stylish, preferably both,” says Dr. Chapelle. Historically, bottled water from springs was even perceived as having mythical and spiritual significance. In a preview of the modern debate over ownership of precious water resources, the owner the land surrounding Healing Springs in South Carolina was so convinced that the water was a gift from God that he gave it back to the Almighty in his will, so that the recorded deed still lists “God Almighty” as the owner of the property.
Bottled water went out of style and need in the early twentieth century, when the advent of chlorination in municipal drinking water supplies made public water consistently healthy and safe to drink. But the allure of health and image fueled a bottled water comeback in 1977, when Perrier launched a $5 million marketing campaign in the United States for its imported water. Perrier’s marketing and timing were perfect, as it took advantage of “concerns about pollution and poor-quality tap water, and it caught the yuppies just as they were beginning to flex their consumer muscles,” says Dr. Chapelle. In short, Perrier “was all the things yuppies wanted in a lifestyle-defining product.” After Perrier’s success, a new market was created that led directly to the current growth and bottled water industry we see today.
The next big thing in bottled water may not even be bottled. A new company from Grand Rapids, Michigan is launching an alternative to bottled water – boxed water. The company, Boxed Water is Better, uses milk carton-like boxes as an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic bottles. Cool product and great company, check them out.