Throughout history, access to clean, safe drinking water has been one of humanity's most fundamental needs.
Yet today, billions freely pay exorbitant sums for mere bottles of water—something that flows nearly free from the tap. How did we arrive at such an absurd situation?
The fascinating untold story of bottled water reveals how a combination of savvy advertising, public health scares, and consumer gullibility transformed a luxury item into a multi-billion dollar global industry.
It's a tale of how shrewd corporate interests manufactured demand by preying on fears about water safety. They succeeded in making bottled water seem desirable, healthy and fashionable despite its dubious merits.
The rise of bottled water also reflects wider themes of capitalism's power to reshape societal habits and values.
With astute marketing, corporations convinced consumers to pay extravagantly for a product readily available at home for practically nothing.
It's a cautionary case study of how easily our consumption can be manipulated when greed collides with fear.
This is the curious, vexing and wildly successful history of bottled water.
The 19th century was a time of rapid urbanization and industrialization in America.
As cities grew more crowded and industries polluted the environment, municipal water sources often became breeding grounds for dangerous diseases like cholera, typhoid and dysentery.
Confidence in public water utilities plummeted.
This major public health crisis opened the door for a new product—commercially bottled spring water marketed as a wholesome elixir.
Sensing opportunity, bottled water companies sprang up across New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.
They sourced their water from remote mountain springs, lakes and wells thought to be immune from urban taint.
Proprietors filled glass bottles by hand near the water's source then shipped them to city retailers.
Affluent urbanites fearful of disease eagerly purchased these expensive glass bottles to secure what they believed was water in its purest form, straight from nature's aquifers.
Print advertisements from bottlers made pseudo-scientific claims about the vitality and rejuvenating properties contained in their waters. Brand names evoked health, such as "Life Water" or "Vitality Spring."
Bottlers believed averting disease and cholera justified the outsized prices they charged.
This early mass marketing of bottled water took advantage of legitimate concerns about municipal water safety. Though most exaggerated their claims, 19th century bottlers laid the commercial groundwork for today's gigantic bottled water industry.
As the germ theory of disease spread in the late 19th century, European consumers became increasingly concerned about the health risks posed by contaminated water supplies.
This fear spawned efforts to find new ways to purify drinking water within the home.
In 1880, a French inventor named Stanislas Limousin patented a ceramic water filtration device dubbed 'La Purifiateur'—The Purifier.
Shaped like a bulbous pitcher, it consisted of an upper and lower chamber separated by a filter made of porous porcelain.
Users would pour untreated water into the top vessel—it would then trickle through the porcelain filter element into the lower holding chamber ready for drinking.
La Purifiateur became a popular product in middle class French households.
Its creators touted the pitcher's ability to remove impurities and dangerous "miasmas" from water via filtration.
Dozens of imitators soon appeared on the market across Europe. While scientifically dubious by modern standards, these ceramic purifiers provided comfort to people uneasy about rising rates of deadly waterborne illnesses in rapidly urbanizing areas.
The success of La Purifiateur created the template for the filtered water pitcher still ubiquitous today.
It sparked a do-it-yourself water purification trend driven by apprehension over public water sources. Limousin's humble pitcher foreshadowed the now-globalized bottled water industry built on popular alarm over water purity.
In the 1970s, concerns about water quality and emerging health consciousness led more Americans to drink bottled water as an alternative to soda and liquor.
Sensing a major commercial opportunity, Pepsi became the first major soft drink company to enter the bottled water market.
In 1977, Pepsi launched Aquafina—the company's first bottled water brand.
Early ads portrayed Aquafina as a pure, natural beverage sourced from glistening mountain springs. This positioning tapped into the back-to-nature ethos prominent in the 1970s.
While Aquafina actually originated from municipal water supplies, Pepsi added minerals to evoke the taste of natural spring water.
Aquafina's launch proved well-timed, coming just before the jogging, aerobicizing, diet-obsessed culture of the 1980s.
Pepsi made bottled water fashionable and convenient at a time when health became paramount.
By marketing Aquafina in vending machines, supermarkets and as an accompaniment to fast food, Pepsi made bottled water an everyday mass market item.
Other beverage companies quickly followed Pepsi's lead.
The Purina and Schafer brands soon joined Aquafina on shelves.
Rather than simply quench thirst, these brands successfully pitched the purity, health and vitality bottled water could bring.
Pepsi's Aquafina was the pioneering brand that turned bottled water into a multi-billion dollar business and cultural phenomenon.
For most of history, bottled water was encased in glass, making it heavy and costly to transport.
This changed with the invention of the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottle in 1973.
PET was lightweight, shatterproof, reusable and relatively inexpensive to manufacture. It revolutionized the economics of bottled water.
Prior to PET, bottlers used glass bottles which were prone to breaking and added substantial weight during shipping.
Transitioning to plastic allowed vast productivity gains.
Early plastic bottling plants could produce up to 3,600 bottles per hour versus just 350 per hour with glass. Plastic meant extra strength with less material—the average plastic water bottle weighed less than two ounces.
The switch to PET cut bottled water's unit price dramatically.
Coca-Cola's Dasani brand used this technology to sell bottled water at prices competitive with soft drinks.
Transportation costs for shipments also dropped.
Strong but feather light PET bottles could be packed efficiently into trucks and trains.
By the late 1970s, small start-up bottled water companies were thriving due to the PET bottle's affordability. PET democratized bottling, creating major growth for discounted store brands.
Today over 500 billion plastic water bottles are produced annually thanks to this packaging revolution started 50 years ago.
By 1975, bottled water sales exceeded milk sales for the first time in the United States—representing a major shift in the American consumer psyche.
Just a decade earlier, bottled water was a niche product purchased mainly by the affluent or for traveling. But several factors converged to thrust bottled water into the mainstream by the mid-1970s.
The rise of the health food movement in the 1960s and 70s made natural spring water seem like a healthy beverage choice over milk and soft drinks.
Environmental concerns also increased doubts about tap water safety.
Bottled waters were portrayed as coming straight from pure, untouched mountain springs.
Madison Avenue seized onto this growing consciousness by presenting bottled waters as a fashionable lifestyle accessory for the health-conscious.
The advent of plastic bottle manufacturing brought down costs and boosted availability in supermarkets and vending machines.
Between 1975 and 1979, per capita consumption of bottled water doubled. Companies like Perrier used sophisticated advertising to associate bottled water with vitality, purity and chic living.
While the surging popularity was marketed as a health craze, it also reflected worries about what was flowing from public taps.
For many, paying a premium for bottled water seemed safer than drinking free but potentially tainted tap water. This major shift in consumer behavior marked the true beginnings of America's bottled water obsession.
In 1999, conceptual artist Michael Jantzen executed a creative stunt that satirized the rising obsession with bottled water.
He set up a booth in New York City selling ordinary NYC tap water poured into used glass bottles and labeled it ‘Molecular H2O.’
Priced at $1.50, Jantzen’s “designer” tap water cost more than premium brands like Evian.
Jantzen outfitted himself in a lab coat and adopted the persona of a scientific water expert.
When passersby asked what was so special about his water, he pseudo-scientifically claimed it was enhanced by “reconfigured molecules” and New York’s “natural minerals.”
Many people actually bought the overpriced tap water, seemingly blinded by the scientific terminology and marketing.
Through his street theater, Jantzen highlighted the absurd lengths people go to pay for bottled water instead of drinking basically free, stringently tested tap water.
It was a prescient artistic statement just as the bottled water craze was taking off.
He exposed how savvy marketing of untested bottled water leveraged consumer doubts about tap water safety.
Jantzen’s stunt also revealed people’s scientific gullibility and willingness to buy anything labeled innovative.
Two decades later, the contemporary art world values Jantzen’s project for its biting critique of bottled water mania driven by vague health promises and ignorance of water regulations.
The Pacific island nation of Fiji has abundant natural freshwater sources, which companies like Fiji Water bottled and sold overseas at great profit.
However, these companies came under scrutiny for the meager economic benefits provided to Fiji itself.
When Fiji Water opened its bottling plant in 1996, it negotiated a remarkably low lease payment to the Fijian government—just $500,000 annually—for unlimited access to Fiji's pristine aquifers and rainwater.
This paled compared to Fiji Water's billions in revenues. The company's tax obligations were also minimized through complex international tax structures.
Fijians criticized this lopsided arrangement where foreign corporations like Fiji Water extracted the country's natural resources for vast profits while average citizens saw minimal economic gains.
Fiji received limited income for its most precious natural resources being packaged and resold overseas at premium prices.
By 2010, public pressures forced Fiji Water to pay slightly higher extraction fees, though still far below fair market rates.
The Fiji Water saga illustrates how multinational bottled water corporations have often exploited lax environmental regulations in developing nations. Fiji's abundant freshwater exported for Western consumption delivered minimal tangible returns for Fijians themselves.
The launch of Coca-Cola's Dasani brand in 1999 marked a pivotal moment in the bottled water industry, as one of America's most iconic beverage companies entered the rapidly growing market.
Coca-Cola used its unmatched distribution network to bring bottled water to the mass market and make it as ubiquitous as its famous cola drink.
In the 1990s, Coke saw consistent declines in its soft drink sales as health consciousness rose. Launching Dasani gave Coca-Cola a low-calorie hydration beverage to compete with Pepsi's Aquafina.
Though simply purified municipal tap water, Dasani was marketed as a pure, crisp and refreshing drink. Coca-Cola also introduced a stylish blue Dasani bottle inspired by the iconic Coke bottle shape.
Within just a few years, Dasani became one of the top three bottled water brands in America.
Coke advertised it heavily, especially in the context of fitness and an active lifestyle.
Just as it had made Coke an everyday staple, the company made bottled water available everywhere from vending machines to fast food restaurants.
Dasani's success demonstrated Coca-Cola's unrivaled ability to manufacture consumer demand through branding, distribution and supply.
By treating water like any other commercial beverage, Coca-Cola helped transform drinking water in bottles into a major part of American culture. The innocent looking Dasani bottle would generate billions in profits for Coke in the decades to come.
The year 2000 marked a major inflection point when bottled water sales overtook both coffee and beer for the first time to become the second most popular beverage in the United States behind soft drinks.
This surging popularity of bottled water reflected just how thoroughly it had moved into the American mainstream.
A beverage consumed by a niche health-conscious market just two decades earlier was now a daily habit for millions.
By 2000, the typical American was drinking around five gallons of bottled water annually.
Nearly one third of households refused to drink tap water at all. Classifying bottled water as a necessity, offices and public spaces installed water coolers. Restaurants added bottled water to their beverage menus.
Several factors powered bottled water's rise.
Aggressive marketing campaigns portrayed it as natural, pure and beneficial for health and beauty.
The fitness craze made hydration trendy. Environmental scares like lead contamination increased tap water fears.
PET plastic bottling lowered costs and boosted accessibility.
Bottled water became cool and hip with exotic European brands setting the pace.
Within just a generation, drinking bottled water had gone from fringe to ubiquitous.
Marketers effectively made the case that buying their bottled products was safer than drinking free tap water readily available from the sink.
Passing coffee and beer demonstrated the speed and extent to which bottled water had embedded itself into American lifestyles.
The bottled water industry has grown exponentially over the past half century into a $100 billion global behemoth today.
It's a remarkable story of how shrewd marketing was able to rebrand a product already flowing virtually free from taps as a must-have health and lifestyle accessory.
In the 70s, bottled water was a niche item, largely for the affluent worried about tap water safety.
But clever advertising casting doubt on tap water drove demand.
Associating bottled water with beauty, fitness and purity made it aspirational. Soon, it became awkward to be seen without the latest premium bottled brand in hand.
The results are stunning. Globally, people now pay 300 times more per gallon for bottled water than tap water.
They fork over even higher premiums for prestigious brands like Fiji and Evian.
Yet research shows much of bottled water is just processed municipal tap water. Consumers are paying astronomical markups for packaging, branding and vague notions of purity.
Today bottled water is a $100 billion industry dominated by giant multinational brands like Nestle, Danone and Coca-Cola.
Yet its success was built on the triumph of marketing over reason.
Who could have predicted half a century ago that selling water would become more lucrative than selling oil?
It is a case study of how skilled promotion can fundamentally reshape society's habits—even selling us back the water we already possess.