“mineral waters … are drunk in great abundance …”

I've been researching the building that we are in the process of renovating at 205 W. McMicken in the Northern Liberties of Over-the-Rhine. Over its 150+-year history, the building has served different business purposes as it boasts a first-floor commercial space. From the 1860s until 1900, it housed a mineral and seltzer water company, Best & Lothes, run by Adam Best and Eberhart Lothes. Adam was not only the business proprietor but also the building's owner. I wanted to research why these two men – both German-speaking immigrants fairly new to Cincinnati – would start this kind of business in the mid-1860s. It turns out that they were hardly alone.

In fact, Best & Lothes joined a host of others as the mineral water industry took off in Cincinnati around the Civil War. Why? It seems that Best and Lothes, along with these competitors, took advantage of a few key historical developments in the mid-to late 19th century that allowed for such a business to thrive. For one, a safe urban supply of drinking water was still a wistful idea at the time. People sought spring or mineral water as a prudent alternative. Beyond this, popular medical conceptions of the mid-19th century saw that natural waters possessed some curative power.

Cities & Sanitation by the Mid-1800s

Beginning in colonial times, American cities faced poor water sanitation. Disease was a major problem as modern epidemiology was not understood. To combat this, some cities established public health codes and nuisance law, helping to regulate fetid discharges of some professions like butchers and tanners. In general, though – unlike England who was already centralizing its water systems at this time – Americans throughout the late 18th and early 19th century saw clean drinking water and the removal of waste as a personal problem. For water, people relied on cisterns, public and private wells and bottled water carted into cities, a practice which first began in the U.S. in Saratoga Springs, New York in the 1820s. But most people used very little water since it was either polluted and expensive to purchase in bottled form. There were no public, comprehensive sewer systems either, so privy vaults proliferated. These vaults were occasionally siphoned into carts and emptied into nearby waterways.[i]

By the mid-1800s, fear of disease and fire in cities propelled some municipal leaders – notably in Philadelphia, Boston and New York – to construct semi-public waterworks. Governments generally awarded contracts to private operators, and these operators delivered water of varying quality at steep prices. The effect was further muted by landlords who proved slow in installing connections, especially for their less affluent tenants.

Fires were a common occurrence in the mid-1800s. Poor Adam Best's stable burned down at one point.  Cincinnati Enquirer,  May 24th, 1877.   Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Fires were a common occurrence in the mid-1800s. Poor Adam Best's stable burned down at one point. Cincinnati Enquirer, May 24th, 1877. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

Luckily for everyone, waste and polluted water slowly began to be seen as a physical problem leading to disease. Prior to this “sanitary revolution” in thinking, physicians and municipal engineers associated the spread of disease with individual characteristics and proclivities; that is, if an individual took sick from cholera, something to do with that person’s individual or demographic characteristics predisposed them to that disease. This idea began to be displaced around the 1840s when physicians and health reformers contended that physical conditions, including impure water and garbage, rather than idiosyncratic traits determined the likelihood and course of epidemic diseases such as cholera. This shift in thinking importantly coincided with public health officials paying greater attention to industrial workers’ ill bodies and slowly theorizing that their work environments – and not the workers’ moralities or work ethics – were making them sick.[ii]

This was still a long time before germ theory. And as the medical debates persisted, acute diseases like cholera continued to ravage cities, like it did in Cincinnati in 1832-33, 1849-50, 1866 and again in 1873. In this midcentury era, people conceived of bodily health, or the lack thereof if one had cholera, as a matter of equilibrium. The now-terrifying idea of blood-letting came from this idea of illness as disequilibrium – removing “excess” blood from an ill person. Still, the idea of a physically clean environment was still seen as an important part of the health equilibrium, and thus even incorrect medicine contributed to further activism for clean water and cities.

The Civil War turned out to be a turning point in the quest for better sanitation. Doctors and nurses endlessly struggled with infectious diseases and drinking water impurities, and thereafter, officials in many cities established health departments and city-wide water supply systems with rudimentary distribution networks. Combined-sewer overflow systems (CSOs) – combined in the sense that water and sewage were directed through cities in the same underground piping – proliferated. The water and waste only mixed when the water overflowed into the sewage trough, though it was assumed that the water would dilute and thus slowly eliminate the waste before it reached a downstream community. People also began to focus on miasmas (foul smells) as links to disease, again contributing to more attention to good water and removed waste. American engineers continued to be trained in and borrow heavily from the water and wastewater systems being built in England and Europe at this time.

Only in the 1880s, with the discovery of bacteria by scientists like German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch, did public health and medicine begin to understand epidemiology better. While CSOs still prevailed, other inventions helped to improve drinking water and waste removal. Indoor water closets became more common as water and sewer lines expanded. Engineering and medicine professionalized around this time, with mandated university educations and professional licensing. By World War I, first in Philadelphia, small amounts of chlorine were added to municipal water supplies to eradicate waterborne bacteria.

Still, germ theory did not prove to be a magic bullet for all sanitation problems. As evident by the continued use of CSOs after the discovery of bacteria, often times Americans merely moved a sanitary problem downstream. The turn of the 20th century was marked by a profound amount of activism on behalf of many kinds of Americans calling for safer and cleaner cities, in terms of water, waste, food quality, housing conditions, air cleanliness, working conditions and so on. Their continued agitation suggests cities and their water were far from clean in the early 1900s. It wouldn't be until after World War II that federal legislation would address water pollution.[iii]

Best and Lothes Mineral Water Manufacturers – in business from the 1860s to the late 1890s – operated within these years of shifting ideas of public health, urban metabolism and epidemiology.

“Taking the Waters”

The expanding number of mineral water manufacturers in Cincinnati in 1865 and 1870. Best & Lothes appears to be the only one servicing the far-north part of Over-the-Rhine. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

The expanding number of mineral water manufacturers in Cincinnati in 1865 and 1870. Best & Lothes appears to be the only one servicing the far-north part of Over-the-Rhine. Courtesy of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

For centuries, natural waters—including their associated resorts—have been used by people for their purported medicinal benefits. And it was not all crazy talk. Some spring waters, designated as “chalybeate,” contained relatively high concentrations of dissolved iron, and thus physicians would send young women in the 1800s suffering from “chlorosis” (anemia) to such waters. Others would go to waters containing large amounts of “carbonate of magnesia” and “sulfate of soda” which helped to relieve the person of indigestion and constipation. One man visited the Stafford Springs in Connecticut in 1765 for a skin infection. Afterwards he acclaimed the water’s “reputation of curing the gout, sterility, pulmonary, hysterics, etc.” By the early 1800s, pioneering chemists understood elements and atomic weights; they also knew how to precipitate and then weigh dissolved solids like sodium, calcium, iron, magnesium, bicarbonate and sulfate from water. This led people to be able to identify the solids for each natural water site and their healing properties.[iv]

In America, beginning in colonial times and becoming more common into the 19th century, the affluent flocked to natural springs as luxury resorts, both for health reasons and as a stylish thing to do (and drink). Even President George Washington used the warm waters of (what is now) Berkeley Springs, West Virginia for his rheumatism. But, many could not afford to travel for such plush vacations, and so the mineral water bottling industry was born. Indeed, for many, “still” (non-mineral) water held a strong stigma of poverty since the poor were forced to drink often-contaminated everyday water. Saratoga Springs was the site of the first bottled water in America, beginning in the 1820s. The trend grew quickly. A British observer noted of Philadelphia in the same years that:

“[D]uring the hot season, mineral waters, sometimes mixed with syrups, are drunk in great abundance. The first thing every American who can afford five cents takes, on rising in the morning, is a glass of soda water. Many houses are open for the sale of it, and some of them are fitted up with Parisian elegance.”[v]

After the Civil War and as railroads standardized and equalized time travel for more Americans, less affluent visitors also began to take spa trips. Bottling also became more affordable; specifically, the application of glass dip-mold technology drastically lowered bottle making costs (glass blowing technology came by the early 1900s). The costs of the glass bottle finally fell below the value of the water. In 1856, water from Congress Springs was selling in New York for $1.75 a pint and $2.25 a quart ($10 per pint in today’s money).[vi]

Furthermore, in the decades surrounding the Civil War, a whole literature – and quasi-medical field known as hydropathy or the water-cure – developed by mineral water enthusiasts abroad migrated to America and successfully helped to convince many of water’s curative and hygienic powers. Hydropathy entailed a rigid regime of bathing and soaking, alongside a restrictive low-fat diet and exercise schedule. It was most popular among women, in part due to the high number of female hydropathic practitioners such as Mary Gove Nichols (founder of the first hydropathy school). Given a chance to practice medicine when the field was exclusive to men, hydropathy not only invited women to be healers but also more openly talked about the female body than was common among male physicians. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe was a fan. Still, the curative powers of consuming or bathing in certain waters was not without its detractors; particularly by the turn of the 20th century – as Best and Lothes Mineral Water Manufacturers ceased to exist –medical, licensed professionals castigated hydropathy and saw its proponents (along with apothecaries and midwives) as “quacks.” Muckraking journalists around the year 1900 also took issue with medicines that claimed to solve all bodily ailments.[vii]

Best & Lothes’ Competition

In 19th-century Cincinnati, mineral water was increasingly a niche business, and Best and Lothes joined a host of other companies. In 1845, Thomas M. Rutherhood was one of the first to start a mineral water manufacturing company in the city; it was later expanded by his son and partners. Brothers George and John Postel were another notable mineral water manufacturer in the 1840s and ‘50s, also having prime property near the river to sell the bottled goods. So were Frederick Goosmann, Henry Verhage and Henry and Charles Overdiek. Indeed, the business was competitive, even in these early years of the city. By 1851, Cincinnati already possessed eight mineral water factories with 64 employees who boasted $105,000 in annual output.[viii]

One of Best and Lothes' bottles. 

One of Best and Lothes' bottles. 

All of these businesses claimed to sell “mineral water,” not spring water. The two terms seemed to be somewhat interchangeable back then. For the water that needed to be carbonated, the technique derived from an English man in the 1760s who discovered carbonation when he dissolved “fixed air” from brewery vats in water and noted how it produced “an exceedingly pleasant sparkling water.” A French chemist later coined it “carbonic acid.” People understood then that natural carbonated spring waters were medicinal, so perhaps artificially induced effervescent waters might be healthful too. The carbonation process in Cincinnati came from marble dust; granite and marble were shipped via rail and steamboat into the city by the 1850s. Mineral water manufacturers mixed the dust with sulphuric acid in sealed containers, helping to produce carbon dioxide which was siphoned to another vessel with water, thus carbonating it. A small steam engine propelled the process; this mostly liked occurred for Adam Best behind 205 and 207 W. McMicken at a small bottling plant. The water could be flavored with syrup if desired. It was easy, even with just a few men, to fill and seal hundreds of glass bottles per day. Occasionally a bottle would explore from pressure, making the work at times dangerous. That the bottles did not necessarily come from Cincinnati, or even Over-the-Rhine, meant that mineral water manufacturers like Adam Best needed wagon drivers to go to the river front to retrieve them from docked ships. His sons usually performed this duty.[ix]

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1891, vol. 3, showing 205 and 207 as 277 and 279 W. McMicken. Note the building behind them for bottling. Courtesy of the OhioLink Digital Resource Commons.

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1891, vol. 3, showing 205 and 207 as 277 and 279 W. McMicken. Note the building behind them for bottling. Courtesy of the OhioLink Digital Resource Commons.

The mineral water market only tightened in the decade after the Civil War. Two local mineral water manufacturers, Henry Verhage and his business partner Herman Knuwener, convinced the Ohio State Legislature to adopt House Bill No. 153, passed April 9th, 1880. The purpose was to protect manufacturers, bottlers and dealers in ginger-ale, seltzer-water, soda-water, mineral-water and other beverages from the loss of their bottles and boxes. Anyone engaged in the business of these articles, having their name or initials blown, stamped or marked on their bottles, could register them with the Office of the Secretary of State. The Act, which imposed fines of $5 per stolen bottle or box for the first offense and $10 on conviction of a second offense, made it unlawful:

“for any person or persons hereafter, without the written consent of the owner or owners thereof, to fill with ginger-ale, soda-water, mineral-water, or other beverage, or any other articles of merchandise, medicine, compound, or preparation, for sale, or to be furnished to customers, any such bottles or boxes, with their names or initials so marked or stamped, or to sell, dispose of, buy, or traffic in, or wantonly destroy any such bottle or box so marked or stamped by the owner or owners thereof … [if it is found that] any junk dealer, or other dealer, or manufacturer, or bottler, has any bottle or box secreted in, about, or upon, his, her, or their premises, the justice of the peace or police judge shall issue a search-warrant, and cause the premises designated to be searched…. Search-warrant may be issued on affidavit of owners of bottles.”[x]

Manufacturers immediately sought to wield this bill against each other. It came to a head in 1881. As the Cincinnati Daily Gazette explained in November:

“The famous mineral water bottle case, which has been taking up the time of the Police Court and trying the patience and worrying the diminutive brains of sundry juries, was dismissed yesterday by Judge Higley, who, at the same time, ordered the Clerk to pay the costs amounting to $128.  The case has been explained time and again, and amounted to simply this: It was a fuss among mineral water manufacturers about the using by one of the bottles of another manufacturer. Each one, of course, thought his compressed, marble dust and gas was the best, and on that account feared damage to his business if his bottles were used by any other manufacturer.  Campbell, attorney for Verhage & Knuwenjer, it is said, framed a law to obviate the difficulty, which passed the Legislature. Judge Higley, in dismissing the case, reprimanded Messrs. Verhage & Knuwener, the plaintiffs, for attempting to make of his court a court of collections to settle their difficulties, and wished them to understand that there was to be no more of it.”

Luckily Adam Best was never the target of Verhage and Knuwener’s law suits (which did not end with Judge Higley’s 1881 dismissal).


[i] Francis H. Chapelle, Wellsprings: A Natural History of Bottled Spring Waters (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005); Martin Melosi, The Sanitary City: Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999).

[ii] Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner. Deadly Dust: Silicosis and the On-going Struggle to Protect Workers’ Health (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006); Markowitz and Rosner, Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013); Christopher Sellers, Hazards of the Job: From Industrial Disease to Environmental Health Science (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[iii] Joel Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (Akron: University of Akron Press, 1996).

[iv] Chapelle, Wellsprings, 41-48, 107.

[v] Quoted in Loring Bullard, Healing Waters: Missouri's Historic Mineral Springs and Spas (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004), 18.

[vi] Bullard, Healing Waters, 11-23; Chapelle, Wellsprings, 73-74.

[vii] Marshall Scott Legan, “Hydropathy, or the Water-Cure,” in Pseudo-Science and Society in 19th-Century America, ed. Arthur Wrobel (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press), 74-99; Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine: The Rise of a Sovereign Profession and the Making of a Vast Industry (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1982); Erika Janik, “Empowering Women with Water: On Hydropathy and a 19th Century Heroine,” Signature, January 20, 2014; Chapelle, Wellsprings, 20.

[viii] “Mineral Water, Pig’s Feet, Bass Lodge, and Me,” Digger Odell Publications, 2010, accessed October 1, 2017, http://www.bottlebooks.com/verhage/henry_verhage.htm.

[ix] Chapelle, Wellsprings, 44-45; “Mineral Water.”

[x] Ibid.