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Sherlock Holmes Victorian Gasogene

Author: Liese Sherwood-Fabre, award-winning writer

Sherlockian Holmesian

In several cases, Holmes and Watson enjoyed a whiskey and soda, and once they offered a client a brandy and soda—most likely supplied from the “spirit case” (or tantalus) and gasogene in a corner of the apartment at 221B. Both were common items for the well-supplied gentleman, with soda, or seltzer, water having a long history of providing both refreshment as well as, at times, medicinal properties.

Some mineral springs create carbonated water on their own. Filtered through porous layers of rocks and minerals, the water becomes infused with sodium or potassium that give the water its fizz. Ancient populations often considered these as religious sites, (1) and with healing properties. People would come to “take the waters,” soaking in or drinking from the springs to cure almost any disease. (2)

Hippocrates was the first to advocate such springs for medical purposes. (3) He argued that disease involved an imbalance of bodily fluids. To restore balance, treatment involved bathing, drinking water, and exercise and massage. Both private and public baths were constructed, and the Romans spread the concept as they conquered Europe. The British town of Bath was originally a Roman structure.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire, “taking the waters” fell out of popularity, only to be rediscovered during the Renaissance. In the late 1500s, the Italians were once again bathing and drinking spring water to relieve various complaints. One compendium listed more than 78 ailments that could be treated in the baths. (4) The interest in such springs spread across Europe, with a mineral spring in Spa, Belgium giving a name to such facilities. (5)

In the 1700s, water from such springs became commercialized. The most famous of these is Nieder Seltzer, a town outside Frankfurt. Not only did the town supply the name “seltzer” to the water, it also was the first to export it to the US in three-pint stone bottles. These were corked and sealed to maintain the effervescence. Once uncorked, however, all the gas escaped within a day, leaving behind a flat, noticeably saltier water behind. (6)

Given the limited supply of natural mineral waters, others sought means of carbonating regular water. John Priestly is given credit for inventing carbonated water in 1767 by suspending a bowl of water over a beer vat (which produces carbon dioxide) in Leeds, England. A feasible production process was introduced in 1781 when Thomas Henry in Manchester, England created the first carbonated water factory. (7)

In addition to commercially produced soda-water, home-made options were also developed—such as the gasogene in Holmes’ possession. This particular device consisted of two glass globes covered in wire mesh for protection from broken glass and connected to each other through a tube. Tartaric acid (from grapes) and bicarbonate of soda were mixed in the lower orb and still water was placed in the upper. Once the gasogene was assembled, water dripped into the lower part to create a chemical reaction between the alkali and the acid, forming a gas, which was forced up the tube and into the water to create carbonated water. (8)

One of the biproducts of such carbonation is carbonic acid, which gives the water a tarte taste and kills bacteria, an additional reason for it to be a healthful substitute for often contaminated plain water available prior to chlorination. While many drank seltzer water alone because of the touted medicinal properties (basically, clean water), others also used it for mixing with drinks, such as whiskey or brandy, as mentioned by Holmes. Other drinks were also produced with seltzer or soda water. Beeton’s Book of Household Management included four drink recipes requiring soda-water (Champagne Cup, anyone?), as well as noting its benefits for the sick. (9)

When Holmes and Watson enjoy their whiskey and soda, they are participating in a ritual that dates far back into history.

If you’d like to see a gasogene in action, here’s a video:


Liese Sherwood-Fabre is pleased to announce that Case Four of The Early Case Files of Sherlock Holmes is now available for pre-order from these booksellers, here: In The Adventure of the Purloined Portrait, the Holmes family travels to Paris where ghosts from Violette’s past threaten the family’s future.


6) Oliver Oldschool, The Portfolio. Philadelphia: Bradford and Inskeep, 1809, page 312.
9) Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management. London: Ward, Lock and Company, 1898

Thank you very much for this article Liese Sherwood-Fabre.

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