Rio History: The Torpedo

By Steve Hathcock

A woman called me the other day to tell me about her recent beachcombing trip to the mouth of the Rio Grande River. While exploring in the mudflats that lie directly north of the riverbank, she found shards of glass and several unbroken bottles. “One of the bottles is very odd” she said. As soon as she started to describe her find I knew what it was,but I still needed her to send a photo before I could verify my conclusion.

Yup, I was right, the bottle she found is called a “torpedo” or “soda bottle” and was common during the 1800s. I have written about sodas in the past so the following  information was easily located. Though the name, soda, was first used in the late 1700s, man has enjoyed the healing properties of carbonated waters for thousands of years. Romans documented many of Europe’s most famous mineral wells during the first Century AD. As word of the sparkling water’s healing properties spread, so did the demand for the product. But herein lay the problem: Carbonated water’s fizz would mysteriously disappear during travel across long distances. Shipping carbonated water was replaced by people traveling to the springs, which of course, only the rich could afford. Then came the invention of the torpedo bottle.

Jacob Schweppe and his partner Nicholas Paul were the first to use the egg-shaped bottle. The rounded end made it impossible to set the bottle down in an upright position, this kept the cork wet, preventing it from shrinking and allowing the carbonation to escape. The design benefited

the merchant in a devious sort of manner. The consumer had to finish the drink before he could lay the bottle down. They’d drink faster, and likely more, as a result.

By 1838, several entrepreneurs added artificial flavors and the drinks popularity took off. Soon there were dozens of bottling plants throughout the United States. The shape of the bottles changed to a flat bottom with improvements made to the stoppers. In 1857, Henry Putnam of

Cleveland, Ohio invented a wire retainer for holding the cork in the bottle. Ginger Ale was first bottled at the onset of the Civil War in 1861 and in 1876 Charles Hires began bottling “root beer.”

In 1885, W.B. Morrison, a druggist at the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas, began

distributing a beverage called Dr. Pepper. John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola followed a year later and sodas as they were now called, were here to stay.

The torpedoes, used mainly in the bottling of mineral waters, remained popular in Europe until the early 1900s.

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