The following is a tale nearly 200 years old, told on pages 134 – 146 of Sir Francis Bond Head’s “Bubbles from the Brunnens of Nassau.” The text is from Google Books, where each page, scanned from the original, can be viewed or searched through the computerized OCR reading (which explains some of the oddities you’ll encounter below).
Head is a very entertaining writer and brings the scenes of Neider-Selters to life better than any I have read and I am excited to share it with you now.
…Descending, however, into valleys, we occasionally passed through several very large villages, which were generally paved, or rather studded with paving-stones; and as the carriage-wheels hopped from one to another, the sensation ( being still too fresh in my memory) I had rather decline to describe : suffice it to say, that the painful excitation vividly expressed in my countenance must have formed an odd contrast with the dull, heavy, half-asleep faces, which, as if raised from the grave by the rattling of ray springs as well as joints, just showed themselves at the windows, as if to scare me as I passed…
The features of the country now began to grow larger than ever; and though crops, green and brown, were, as far as the eye could reach, gently waving around me, yet the want of habitations, plantations, and fences gave to the extensive prospect an air of desolation : the picture was perhaps grand, but it wanted foreground -, however, this deficiency was soon most delightfully supplied by the identical object I was in search of—namely, the brunnen and establishment of Nieder-Selters, which suddenly appeared on the road-side close before me, scarcely a quarter of a mile from its village.
The moment I entered the great gate of the enclosure which, surrounded by a high stone wall, occupies about eight acres of ground, so strange a scene presented itself suddenly to my view, that my first impression was, I had discovered a new world inhabited by brown stone bottles; for in all directions were they to be seen rapidly moving from one part of the establishment to another — standing actually in armies on the ground, or piled in immense layers or strata one above another. Such a profusion and such a confusion of bottles it had never entered human imagination to conceive; and, before I could bring my eyes to stoop to detail, with uplifted hands I stood for several seconds in utter amazement.
On approaching a large circular shed, covered with a slated roof, supported by posts, but open on all sides, I found the single brunnen or well from which this highly celebrated water is forwarded to almost every quarter of the globe—to India, the West Indies, the Mediterranean,’Paris, London, and to almost every city in Germany. The hole, which was about five feet square, was bounded by a framework of four strong beams mortised together ; and the bottom of the shed being boarded, it very much resembled, both in shape and dimensions, one of the hatches in the deck of a ship. A small crane with three arms, to each of which there was suspended a square iron crate or basket, a little smaller than the brunnen, stood about ten feet off; and while peasant girls, with a stone bottle (holding three pints) dangling on every finger of each hand, were rapidly filling two of these crates, which contained seventy bottles, a man turned the third by a winch, until it hung immediately over the brunnen, into which it then rapidly descended. The air in these seventy bottles being, immediately displaced by the water, a great bubbling of course ensued ; but, in about twenty seconds, this having subsided, the crate Wps raised; and, while seventy more bottles descended from another arm of the crane, a fresh set of girls curiously carried off these full bottles, one on each finger of each hand, ranging them in several long rows upon a large table or dresser,—also beneath the shed. No sooner were they there, than two men, with surprising activity, put a cork into each; while two drummers, with a long stick in each of their hands hammering them down, appeared as it they were playing upon musical glasses.
Another set of young women now instantly carried them off, four and five in each hand, to men who, with sharp knives, sliced off the projecting part of the cork; and this operation being over, the poor jaded bottles were delivered over to women, each of whom actually covered 3000 of them a day with white leather, which they firmly bound with packthread round the corks; and then, without placing the bottles on the ground, they delivered them over to a man seated beside them, who, without any apology, dipped each of their noses into boiling hot rosin; and, before they had recovered from this operation, the Duke of Nassau’s seal was stamped upon them by another man, when off they were hurried, sixteen and twenty at a time, by girls to magazines, where they peacefully remained ready for exportation.
Although this series of operations, when related one after another, may sound simple enough, yet it must be kept in mind that all were performed at once; and when it is considered that a three, armed crane was drawing up bottles seventy at a time, from three o’clock in the morning till seven o’clock at night (meal hours excepted), it is evident that, without very excellent arrangement, some of the squads either would be glutted with more work than they could perform, or would stand idle with nothing to do :—no one, therefore, dares to hurry or stop; the machinery, in full motion,..
Having followed a set of bottles from the brunnen to the store, where I left them resting from their labours, I strolled to another part of the establishment, where were empty bottles calmly waiting for their turn to be filled. I here counted twenty-five bins of bottles, each four yards broad, six yards deep, and eight feet high. A number of young girls were carrying thirty-four of them at a time on their heads to an immense trough, which was kept constantly full by a large fountain pipe of beautiful clear fresh water. The bottles on arriving here were filled brimful (as I conceived for the purpose of being washed), and were then ranged in ranks, or rather solid columns, of seven hundred each, there being ten rows of seventy bottles.
It being now seven o’clock, a bell rung as a signal for giving over work, and the whole process came suddenly to an end: for a few seconds, the busy labourers (as in a disturbed ant-heap) were seen irregularly hurrying in every direction : but in a very short time, all had vanished. For a few minutes I ruminated in solitude about the premises, and then set out to take up my abode for the night at the village, or rather town, of Nieder-Selters: however, I had no sooner, as I vainly thought, bidden adieu to bottles, than I saw, like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, bottles approaching me in every possible variety of attitude. It appears that all the inhabitants of Nieder-Selters are in the habit of drinking in their houses this refreshing water ; but as the brunnen is in requisition by the Duke all day long, it is only before or after work that a private supply can be obtained : no sooner, therefore, does the evening bell ring, than every child in the village is driven out of its house to take empty bottles to the brunnen ; and it was this singular-looking legion which was now approaching me. The children really looked as if they were made of bottles ; some wore a pyramid of them in baskets on their heads—some were laden with them hanging over their shoulders before and behind—some carried them strapped round their middle—all had their hands full; and little urchins that could scarcely walk were advancing, each hugging in its arms one single bottle.
In fact, at Nieder-Selters, ” an infant” means a being totally unable to carry a bottle, puberty and manhood are proved by bottles; a strong man brags of the number he can carry ; and a superannuation means a being no longer able in this world to bear …. bottles. . ‘ The road to the brunnen is actually strewed with fragments, and so are the ditches ; and when the reader is informed that, besides all he has so patiently heard, bottles are not only expended and exported, but actually are made at Neider-Selters, he must admit that no writer can possibly do justice to that place unless every line of his description contains, at least once, the word …. bottle. The moralists of Nieder-Selters preach on bottles. Life, they say, is a sound bottle, and death a cracked one—thoughtless men are empty bottles—drunken men are leaky ones; and a man highly educated, fit to appear in any country and in any society, is, of course, a bottle corked, rosined, and stamped with the seal of the Duke of Nassau.
As soon as I reached the village inn, I found there all the slight accommodation I required: a tolerable dinner soon smoked on the table before me ; and, feeling that I had seen quite enough for one day of brown stone bottles, I ventured to order (merely for a change) a long-necked glass one of a vegetable fluid superior to all the mineral water in the world. The following morning, previous to returning to the brunnen, I strolled for some time about the village ; and the best analysis I can offer of the Selters water is the plain fact, that the inhabitants of the village, who have drunk it all their lives, are certainly, by many degrees, the healthiest and ruddiest looking peasants I have anywhere met with in the dominions of the Duke of Nassau.
This day being a festival, on reaching the brunnen at eleven o’clock I found it entirely deserted—no human being was to be seen : all had been working from three o’clock in the morning till nine, but they were now at church, and were not to return to their labour till twelve. I had, therefore, the whole establishment to myself; and going to the famous brunnen, my first object was to taste its water. On drinking it fresh from the source, I observed that it possessed a strong chalybeate taste, which I had never perceived in receiving it from the bottle. The three iron crates suspended to the arms of the crane were empty, and there was nothing at all upon the wooden dressers which, the evening before, I had seen so busily crowded and surrounded : in the middle of the great square were the stools on which the several cork-covering watnen had sat; while, at some distance to the left, were the solid columns or regiments of uncorked bottles, which I had seen filled brimful with pure crystal water the evening before.
On approaching this brown looking army, I was exceedingly surprised at observing from a distance that several of the bottles were noseless, and I was wondering why such should ever have been filled, when, on getting close to these troops, I perceived, to my utter astonishment, that not only about one-third of them were in the same mutilated State, but that their noses were calmly lying by their sides, supported by the adjoining bottles! What could possibly have been the cause of the fatal disaster which in one single night had so dreadfully disfigured them, I was totally at a loss to imagine: the devastation which had taken place resembled the riddling of an infantry regiment under a heavy fire ; yet few of our troops, even at Waterloo, lost so great a proportion of their men as had fallen in twelve hours among these immovable phalanxes of bottles.
Had they been corked, one might have supposed that they had exploded, but why nothing but their noses had suffered I really felt quite incompetent to explain.As it is always better honestly to confess one’s ignorance, rather than exist under its torture, with a firm step I walked to the door of the governor of the brunnen; and sending up to him a card, bearing the name under which I travelled, he instantly appeared, politely assuring me that he should have much pleasure in affording any information I desired. Instantly pointing to the noseless soldiers, my instructor was good enough to inform me, that bottles in vast numbers being supplied to the Duke from various manufactories, in order to prove them, they are filled brimful (as I had seen them) with water, and being left in that state for the night, they are the next morning \\sited by an officer of the Duke, whose wand of office is a thin, longhandled, little hammer, which at the moment happened to be lying before us on the ground. It appears that the two prevailing sins to which stone bottles are prone, are having cracks, and being porous, in either of which cases they, of course, in twelve hours, leak a little.
The Duke’s officer, who is judge and jury in his own court-yard, carries his own sentences into execution with a rapidity which evenour Lord Chancellor himself can only hope eventually to imitate. Glancing his hawk-like eye along each line, the instant he sees a bottle not brimful, without listening to long-winded arguments, te at once decides “that there can be no mistake—that there shall be no mistake;” and thus at one blow or tap of the hammer, off goes the culprit’s nose. ” So much for Buckingham!
On coming out of the office, the establishment was all alive again, and the peasants being in their Sunday clothes, the picture was highly coloured. Young women in groups of four and five, with little white or red caps perched on the tops of their heads, from which streamed three or four broad ribands, of different colours, denoting the villages they proceeded from, in various directions, singing as they went, were walking together, heavily laden with bottles. They were dressed in blue petticoats, clean white shifts tucked up above the elbows, with coloured stays laced, or rather half unlaced, in front. Old women, covering the corks with leather, in similar costume, but in colours less gaudy, were displaying an activity much more vigorous than their period of life. Across this party-coloured, well-arranged system, which was as regular in its movements as the planets in their orbits, an officer of the Duke, like a comet, occasionally darted from the office to the brunnen, or from the tiers of empty bottles which had not yet been proved, to the magazine of full ones ready to embark on their travels. In quitting the premises, as I passed the regiments of bottles, an operation was proceeding which I had not before witnessed.
Women in wooden shoes were reversing the full bottles; in fact, without driving these brown soldiers from their position, they were making them stand upon their heads instead of upon their heels— the object of this military somerset being to empty them; however, every noseless bottle, water and all, was hurled over a wall, into a bin prepared on purpose to receive them; and the smashing sound of devastation which proceeded from this odd-looking operation it would be very difficult to describe.
Having now witnessed about as much as I desired of the lively brunnen of Nieder-Selters, I bade adieu to this well-regulated estailishment, testing certaia that its portrait would, in futore, te•appear before my mind, in all its vivid colours whensoever and wheresoever I might drink the refreshing, wholesome beverage obtained from its bright, sparkling source. My carriage had long been waiting at the gate: however, having aroused my lumbering and slumbering driver, I retraced my steps, was slowly re-jolted homewards, and it was late before I reached my peaceful abode in 4he gay, green little valley of Schlangenbad.