Tom Bown, Research Associate, Royal British Columbia Museum
Despite the fact Victoria has, for the most part, had a safe water supply, anyone living in the 19th and early 20th century needed to remain vigilant. The threat of serious water borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid were never far from mind, but sometimes the choices for water and waste were limited. As an example, in my own Victoria West property, I have located both the original well and privy – they were only seven meters apart!
Until chlorination of municipal water supplies started in the first half of the 20th century (1943 for Victoria), there were numerous small local companies producing bottled mineral waters and flavoured sodas. This was a trend across Canada and Victoria was no exception. Carbonation acts as a preservative and, although not perfect, it provides a safer alternative when boiled or otherwise filtered water is not available. The first bottling works in Victoria was established by Alexander Phillips in 1859 and many more followed. Most of these companies disappear from the records, leaving only the bottles they used; those that did survive were typically absorbed by major national firms by the mid 20th century.
Wealthier families and hotels had soda water delivered in beautifully coloured and ornate siphon bottles from local companies. The company names and logos were acid etched on the bottles. A beautiful blue siphon bottle from the Crystal Spring Water Supply (which operated at 1244 Richardson Street from 1912 to 1976) can be found inside the China Pantry at Point Ellice House (see image below).
The ongoing Esquimalt Harbour Remediation Project has dredged up an amazing number of 19th and early 20th century mineral water and soda bottles. The Department of National Defence has hired archaeologists to monitor the dredging and is partnering with the Royal British Columbia Museum to preserve these artifacts. Numerous examples of early Victoria soda bottles have been found in the harbour, suggesting that many sailors purchased and drank local products.
Today, soda and mineral water seem to be more popular than ever – consider household carbonation appliances and the many different varieties of flavoured water found at the grocery store. Although the water bottling companies of the 19th and early 20th centuries have disappeared, we continue to find evidence of their historical use and distribution across Victoria and BC.