The Bubble Works
Marty Cohen rings the doorbell of my apartment at seven in the morning every Wednesday, the day his route takes him to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He is a husky fellow, built like an iceman, and he has to be: like the iceman’s, his job involves carrying heavy things into people’s homes. And like the iceman’s, his job is nearly extinct.
Every trip, Marty drops off a case of ten full seltzer-water bottles and picks up ten empties. The bottles pretty much tell the story of the industry. All are old, some are ancient, and most have the names of their original owners etched on their sides: Jacob Taleisnikow, Harry Chpitz, Louis Fridberg, each marked “Bklyn,” for this was once a big industry in Brooklyn. But others are from the Bronx and Manhattan, and every now and then a bottle turns up from the Schmeltzer Brothers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and once in a while from what one would have thought to be the seltzerless reaches of Michigan.
They’re Marty’s now because the companies that commissioned them have all gone out of business, the indestructible bottles outliving owner after owner. Fifty years ago in New York there were six hundred dealers being supplied by forty bottling shops. Ten years ago there were three hundred seltzer men and eight shops. Today three shops meet the demand.
One of the survivors is Lou Beverage Distributors, Inc., on Ingraham Street in a work-worn section of industrial Brooklyn. Lou Weinstein has retired and left the day-to-day running of the business to his son, but he is on hand this cool, gray September day to talk about his seltzer-bottling machines. There are two of them, each bearing a big nameplate that reads “The ‘Monitor’ Barnett & Foster, London N.”
It is perhaps fitting that they were built in England, since carbonated beverages began with the great British chemist Joseph Priestley’s attempts to duplicate the effervescent waters of European spas (among them the Prussian village of Nieder Selters, which would give the beverage its name). Priestley charged water with “fixed air”—the carbon dioxide that, under pressure, gives soft drinks their sparkle—and published his findings in 1772. By the early years of the nineteenth century, there were bottling plants all across Europe. The first in America began operations in New Haven in 1806—years after Richard Bewley, another Englishman, had indicated where the real money was to be made by mixing soda water and lemonade in a “mephitic julep.”
Soft drinks would, of course, far outstrip bottled water in sales, and Lou Weinstein’s warehouse is stacked ceiling high with cases of soda and beer. “There’s not much profit in seltzer bottling any more,” he says, “but when you grow up with something, you don’t throw it away.”
A seltzer dealer named Scott—like Marty, a powerful man—has brought in his bottles to be filled (seltzer men all own their own bottles). Lou Weinstein calls over Alex, whose job this is, and the Monitor goes into action.
The seltzer begins as tap water; it is filtered three times, first through sand—“very special,” says Lou, “so fine it’s like powder”—then charcoal, and finally thick paper.
The “Lifetime Magic Giant Type 169 Carbonator,” a Chicago-built new-comer from 1940, pumps carbon dioxide to the bottling machine. Alex checks to see that the pressure stands at seventy pounds, then throws a switch. The Monitor begins to revolve, six sheet-metal chambers, each containing a brass yoke. Alex slaps a bottle into the yoke upside down. As it turns away from him, a cam lifts the lever while raising the spigot up into a collar that snorts in a charge of carbon dioxide and water from two copper hoses that meet just above the valve. “The bottles are never opened,” says Lou.
With both machines running full tilt, Lou Beverage can fill 150 cases an hour. Nobody knows how old the bottling machines are, but a 1912 Barnett & Foster catalog shows a nearly identical “Back-pressure Rotary Filling Machine.” The Monitors rarely break down, but when they do, says Lou, “there’s one guy left alive who can fix them.” The bottles have much the same maintenance support system: “one old guy in the Bronx.”
The Monitor clanks and breathes, clanks and breathes, revolving in a fine spray of water, and then Alex turns it off. Scott’s order is filled. “I teach reading in the winter,” Alex says. “I couldn’t do this all year. It’s nice stuff, but it’s heavy .” He points to the battered wooden cases, each holding its ten bottles. “These weigh seventy pounds apiece. I move a ton a day.”
The cases? “Same thing as with the bottles. One old guy fixes them.” He grins wearily at his truckful of seltzer. “They can send a man to the moon, but they can’t make a plastic seltzer-bottle case.”