|Great Radium Spring Water Co, Inc, Pittsfield, Mass bottle.|
Just as we have a lot of quack medicines today, many of which are quite dangerous (e.g. ephedrine in high doses sold as an "herbal" remedy), soon after the discovery of radiation it started being used in health drinks and other remedies.
This might seem nutty now, and in fact many people died from these treatments. But it's no more nutty than, say, homeopathic remedies are today. (And homeopathic remedies are probably going to stay popular for a long time, because they have the great virtue of containing no actual ingredients other than water and sometimes alcohol. This means they are perfectly safe and free from side effects, which are what usually do in quack remedies eventually. You really have to hand it to an industry that makes vast amounts of money selling tiny little bottles of distilled water. But I digress.)
If you think back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the two most magical recent discoveries from the world of science were electricity and magnetism. Both were by then quite well known and useful, and had been around long enough that people knew they were, taken in moderation of course, quite harmless. No one died a slow and horrible death from exposure to magnets, or from years of sitting under electric lights. So when radioactivity was discovered, why should anyone have expected it to be so horribly dangerous, even in quantities that caused no obvious immediate harm, from lumps you could hold in your hand without any apparent danger? All the early researchers had no idea it was dangerous, and exposed themselves to staggeringly large radiation doses. Many, many of them died as a result, but not until years later, and it took some time before the connection was really understood.
In fact, it was soon observed that the water from mineral hot springs, which everyone knew to be healthful, was radioactive. (It contains radon gas, which comes from the decay of uranium and thorium, which decay is responsible for the heat that makes the spring water hot in the first place.)
This pretty much clinched the argument that radioactivity must be not only harmless, but positively beneficial, and a health craze quickly ensued in the form of "Radithor" water irradiators, thorium drinks, radium drinks, and so on. It was, at the time, seemingly harmless and not nearly as crazy as it seems today. (Of course, it was crazy at the time too, as was the use of electricity and magnetism in quack devices. My point is just that the danger genuinely was not known at first: People were not more stupid back then, they just didn't have the information yet.)
It took the horrible and well-publicized death of the well-known industrialist Eben Byers in 1932, from daily doses of radium health elixir, to finally bring some caution to the craze. This article about the subject is fascinating and informative.
The history of this bottle (and a picture of one like it) can be found in this wonderful book about radioactivity. To quote from the picture caption on page 16:
From 1919 to 1922 the Great Radium Spring Water Company at 24 North Street in Pittsfield, Massachusetts sold bottle water that ostensibly provided some of the same health benefits as radium springs in nearby places like Saratoga Springs, New York. The source of the water used in this product is uncertain but may in fact have contained dissolved radon. Radon levels, however, decline rapidly once water is removed from the ground and this "deficiency" in bottled and city water, gave rise to radon charging devices popular in the 1920s(See my Revigator and Revigator booklet below for an example of one of those charging devices.)
Source: eBay seller elaine301
Contributor: Theodore Gray
Acquired: 10 October, 2002
Text Updated: 11 August, 2007
Sample Group: Medical