Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the increasing opposition by the various temperance movements across the Western world towards the excessive consumption of alcohol coincided with the project to seek out alternative social beverages. Though coffee and tea had already established themselves as popular beverages by the 18th century, it was not until the late 19th century when the modern soft drink came to be available to the masses. These were often marketed for their nutritional and therapeutic values. Coca-Cola, for example, was launched by a teetotal pharmacist in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia as a ‘temperance drink’ and a ‘brain tonic’ that had medicinal qualities against headaches and anxiety. Sweet-flavoured carbonated water not only provided the necessary kick needed in an appealing recreational beverage, it was promoted as a healthful replacement to the ‘poison’ that was liquor.
But are soft drinks actually healthier than alcohol? To the medical community, it seems glaringly clear today that soda is as much of a risk factor to your health as alcohol. A recent report by the British Journal of Sports Medicine proposed that poor dietary habits, not the lack of exercise, was the primary cause of various diet-related diseases, and the high concentration of sugar in fizzy drinks has been identified as one of the culprits. If alcohol increases the risk of liver cirrhosis, hypertension, and dependence, soft drinks can contribute to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.
In order to explain the differences between modern attitudes and those held by the Victorians, the popular medical understandings of the period must be taken into account. The separation between modern attitudes and those of the Victorians lies in differences in the medical assumptions of each period. The idea that the over indulgence in sugar or fat might be a cause of ill health was alien to most people during the 19th century: a time when being overweight was rare and a large segment of the population lived below levels of nutritional subsistence. In Britain it was only during the mid-20th century that the correlation was made by the medical community between rising rates in diabetes and tooth decay with the doubling of sugar consumption across the preceding century, contributing to the present medical knowledge of sugar and disease.
Temperance reformers were perhaps most frightened by alcohol’s effects on the mind. Soft drinks and other ‘moderate’ beverages like coffee only went as far as to give the consumer an energy rush, but alcohol consumption conjured up images of public disorder resulting from drunkenness and the loss of control of one’s own will. Temperate lounges and lodges that served non-alcoholic beverages were created to provide a separate space free from inebriation, though their design and atmosphere often times mimicked bars and pubs.
Drinking water was often dangerous, especially in towns where the supply was polluted. Throughout the 19th century, water became increasingly palatable thanks to technological advancements in filtering and purification, but it wasn’t until the 20th century when bottled mineral water, alongside soft drinks, became widely consumed. Still, mineral water’s tastelessness and its limited utility for socialisation left something to be desired. A column in the British Journal of Addiction from 1947 recommended that alcoholics should develop a habit of enjoying soft drinks instead, as drinking water would be ‘a horror to them’. Today, bottled water is culturally constructed as the most ‘basic’ or ‘neutral’ beverage available, while its ‘ordinariness’ implies healthiness and purity as well as boredom.
From the perspective of public health, the consumption of substances like sugar is now being targeted. Policies to either ban or control the distribution and consumption of alcohol were pushed for by temperance activists in the early 20th century, resulting in strict licensing laws in Britain and outright prohibition in other parts of the world following the First World War. This was followed by a plethora of restrictions imposed on consumption, such as the penalisation of illicit drug use during the interwar period and the smoking bans from the latter half of the 20th century. Today governments have moved to regulating the salt and sugar content of food under the rationale that high rates of obesity and hypertension are burdening the health system. The Victorian attitude of the temperance promotion of alternative beverages can be contrasted to the recent ‘soda ban’ to limit the size soft drinks in New York City under Mayor Bloomberg.
In spite of the fact that it is taken for granted today that beverages of high sugar content result in ill health, grasping the historical context in medical knowledge is important to understanding why people believed soft drinks were considered to be a healthy replacement of alcohol. Chronic diseases aside, the temperance movement’s promotion of soft drinks was grounded in the temperance goal of discouraging or eliminating drunkenness and alcohol dependence from society. Despite the multitude of campaigns and legislation today, there still remains a place for both carbonated sugar water and alcohol within modern society. That is, at least until we can find a way to make water less boring.
 John Burnett, Liquid Pleasures: A Social History of Drink in Modern Britain (London, 1999), p. 103
 Mariana Valverde, Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom (Cambridge, 1998), p. 185
Ryosuke Yokoe is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield.
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