The Wild West of Yester-Year

History in a Bottle
By Rachel Kovaciny

The classic western story Shane features a product that struck me as incongruous the first time I encountered it. Both the book by Jack Schaefer and the 1953 film have pivotal moments that revolve around the title character buying a bottle of soda pop. Quiet, mysterious Shane buys one instead of a shot of whiskey, gets mocked for it, and uses that moment as a statement about whether he will side with the small landowners or the big ranchers.


Soda pop? In the old west? Really? Yes, really. Cowboys and soda pop co-existed. Although people drank naturally carbonated water for centuries because they believed it had health benefits, in the mid-1700s chemists added carbon dioxide to water, drinking it, sharing it with others, and praising it as being pleasant and healthful. People then had the bright idea to add flavors to it, often from fruit juices. The fruit-flavored sparkling waters we have today could be like those early sparkling drinks. A sparkling juice might be even closer.

By the early 1800s, soda water was popular in the United States, and soda fountains sprang up across the country. Pharmacists liked to prescribe it for various ailments, and added flavors like sarsaparilla or ginger. I'm sure the bubbles helped settle upset stomachs, just like it does for us today. Some pharmacists used the flavored soda water to make medicines more appealing. Since they were already adept at mixing various concoctions, it makes sense they would mix and dispense flavored soda water. By the end of the century, many drug stores and pharmacies had a soda fountain where people could drink carbonated, flavored water for fun instead of as a health tonic. 


The real trouble was transporting and storing it, as the soda went flat fast in whatever jar or bottle you put it in. It was difficult and expensive to get a bottle to seal well enough to contain the fizz for long. In 1892, the “crown cap” was invented, which sealed carbonation inside glass bottles, but until then, small-town druggists could buy a soda siphon to mix the gas and water as needed. Those living in more populated places found it easier to buy a big soda "fountain" and mix the drinks as requested. 

By 1880, carbonated "root beer" and "ginger ale" were bottled and sold on a mass scale and there were over 500 soda pop bottling plants across the nation. What we think of as "the cowboy era" ran from 1865 to 1880, which means the Wild West was waning just as mass-produced soda pop became feasible. But carbonated drinks were popular all during the cowboy era, and pharmacists, saloons, and even general store owners used siphons and simple syrups to mix up soda pop on demand. Put it in a glass bottle with a cork wired down to hold the bubbles in, and it would stay fizzy for a little while, anyway. A nice treat for the kids, or anyone thirsty on a hot day. 

That's what Shane bought for the little boy who idolized him. A glass bottle with a mix of carbonated water and cherry flavoring, probably mixed and bottled on the premises. A special treat for a boy, a statement about who Shane sided with within the story’s plot, and a bit of history all in one.