What types of drinks did old La Crosse bottling companies produce? Perhaps sodas we can imagine, such as Lemon Drop, Root Beer, Orange Crush, or Ginger Ale. However, there were also sodas that we maybe can’t imagine, like Egg or Chocolate Cream.
The first bottling company—G. Carl & Co.—opened in La Crosse in 1870. This was a popular type of business well into the 1960s, just one of the many that started in the boom of small businesses that opened in La Crosse with the collapse of the lumber industry in the 1890s. The four bottles pictured here all contained mineral waters and sodas produced by a La Crosse bottling company. They represent four companies: G. Carl & Co., Gateway City, Riverside Bottling, and the La Crosse Bottling Works. All are now in the collection of the La Crosse County Historical Society.
Consumers used to buy their soda, drink it, and return the empty glass bottle to the company that owned it. From there it would be washed and rebottled with a new drink. Because of this, the glass was thicker and higher quality than glass bottles we think of today, and the bottles all proclaimed the name of the company that owned them in embossed glass (as seen in the picture).
By the 1920s, it became increasingly difficult for bottling companies to collect their used bottles. Manufacturers began to mass-produce cheaper, one-time use bottles. This caused sodas to be sold at a higher cost, and shape the tradition we have today of using a plastic soda bottle once before disposing of it, whether by throwing it in the street or recycling it—but never reusing it.
Though none of these La Crosse bottling companies exist today, the bottles survive as artifacts from the past. They will be displayed beside a work of art produced by Roger Bouley, who is using the bottles and their local history as his inspiration. This will be part of the exhibition “[art]ifact: Where History Meets Art,” which will be at the Pump House Regional Arts Center from February 26through April 16. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the UW-L Public History Program and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 6, 2016.