Your New Year’s Resolution to Carry a Water Bottle Has a History

Every January, stores prominently display New Year’s resolutions items, like workout clothes, juicers, planners, and stacks of self-help books. Over the last several years a new object has appeared alongside these—water bottles, in every color of the rainbow and in gargantuan sizes of 40 ounces, 64 ounces, a gallon, or more.

In 2020 the New York Times proclaimed, “Everyone’s resolution is to drink more water,” viewing hydration as a health and wellness panacea. Since then, fanatical water fixation hasn’t waned nor has spending on water bottles. In 2022, Americans spent more than $2 billion on reusable water bottles, up from $1.5 billion in 2020.

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Far from silly trends, hydration obsession and mania for water bottles—particularly ones that are reusable, aesthetically considered, large, and often expensive—have fascinating historical roots and reveal a great deal about today’s wellness and consumer culture.

Bottled water has been sold in the U.S. since nationhood, as Francis H. Chapelle has recounted. By 1920, most municipalities provided free, chlorinated water straight from the tap, which consumers at the time considered a modern marvel. As a result, by 1930 basic bottled water was viewed as “low class,” indicative of substandard sanitation infrastructure.

Read More: Ending Water Bottle Chaos

American bottled water perceptions shifted again in the early 1980s, as the “yuppie” generation embraced conspicuous consumption and health pursuits. They purchased chic bottled waters, like Evian and Perrier, which expanded in the American market in the late 1970s. Bottled water consumption also increased after 1989, when inexpensive, lightweight PET plastic became available, and in the 1990s, when soda giants Pepsi and Coca-Cola launched bottled water brands Aquafina and Dasani.

As bottled water purchases climbed in the 2000s, numerous critics decried the environmental waste of single-use plastics. Nevertheless, millions of Americans still avoid tap water, distrusting it even before the Flint water crisis in 2014. In fact, by 2016, Americans drank more bottled water than any other bottled beverage.

For those who trust or filter their tap water, reusable water bottles posed an environmentally conscious consumer habit that took off in the mid-2000s, especially among college students.

The roots of this trend largely lie in the countercultural 1960s and 1970s, when bottles like those made by Nalgene became available and popular among a niche market of hikers, campers, and “crunchy” eco-conscious consumers, early adopters of consumerist environmentalism, such as the rise of “reduce, reuse, recycle” in 1970. Nalgene bottles grew popular again in the new millennium, especially after 2002, when they came in new colors beyond the original gray.

Noticing the early days of water bottle mania, health care ethics professor Inez de Beaufort coined the term “the camel syndrome” in 2007 in the Journal of Public Health to describe how young Dutch people, aged 12 to 30, routinely carried water bottles with them. She noted adjacent shifts in consumer culture as backpacks and tote bags began to feature compartments specifically for bottles.

Read More: Rich People Are Causing Urban Water Shortages

Around the same time in the U.S., water bottles evolved into must-have items that communicated not just eco-consciousness and health, but also style, taste, and personality. Indeed, forecasting firm WGSN dates water bottles as a lifestyle trend to 2011. Like the world of fashion, specific brands drove cyclic consumer desire: Nalgene, Bobble, and S’well, followed by Yeti, Hydro Flask, and Stanley, to name but a few.

Social media also recast water bottles from a tree hugger’s eco-tool to lifestyle objects, desired by more mainstream clientele. Particularly when targeting women and girls, good-looking water bottles, clutched in a well-manicured hand or delicately set upon a desk, perfectly fit the aesthetic code of Instagram, which launched in 2010.

Aesthetics also drove some water bottle trends on TikTok, whose user numbers expanded during the pandemic, garnering new cultural influence. On the app, #waterbottle boasts 3.1 billion views, along with hashtags like #waterbottleobsession (11.5 million), #waterbottlehack (25.3 million), and #waterbottlecollection (5.5 million). As such hashtags reveal, water bottles further transformed into obsessive consumer objects intended for collecting as much as drinking from.

Social media trends, coupled with hydration concerns and fashion cycles, have also spurred recent demand for extremely large bottles that hold 40 ounces, 64 ounces, and even a gallon or two. These bottles are so heavy that some come equipped with a strap for carrying or are designed like a backpack or purse.

A desire for control partly explains the rise of these big bottles. For much of the 20th century, experts advised drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day (that’s 64 ounces, about two liters), though no scientific evidence supports that specific amount. In fact, consumer interest in hydration and water bottles intensified once dominant dietary messages endorsed not a particular number of ounces, but simply drinking whenever you’re thirsty. Such an open-ended directive created new opportunities for brands and influencers to tap into consumer anxieties.

Among today’s drinkers, some may feel insecure about hydration without a specific intake goal. This is in part because culture broadly has been increasingly oriented around quantification, metrics, and the datafication of everyday life, increasing since the 1980s. These trends further spiked in the 2000s and 2010s, especially for personalized health. The Fitbit launched in 2008. The Apple iPhone had launched a year earlier, and by 2012, the Apple app store featured 13,000 health apps. In 2015 Apple Watch arrived, prominently promoting its health and wellness features.

Read More: Do Mindfulness and Health Trackers Mix? Deepak Chopra and Fitbit CEO James Park on Managing Stress With Data

Over the last 15 years, millions of consumers have enthusiastically focused inward, while at the same time shifting bodily knowledge and intuition to these apps, devices, and the data they provide. These self-trackers also turn to their massive water bottles (and accompanying journals and apps) for hydration data and to feel more secure about their health and selves.

Since water bottles serve as hydration helpers, health markers, eco-friendly status symbols, fashion accessories, and social media savvy, consumers form strong attachments to them. This is evidenced by the TikTok hashtag #emotionalsupportwaterbottle amassing 316.5 million views. Though often framed around children, adults form object attachment as well, which can be amplified during moments of stress and change.

The 2020s have been marked by numerous crises not limited to a global pandemic, violent conflicts, climate change, mass shootings, and fears of technological dystopia. Buying a bevy of colorful water bottles and drinking tons of water helps some of us find order and control in chaos.

But what is key is that water bottles comprise an individualized solution to problems that used to be solved with social infrastructure, widely available to all citizens.

For example, urban and parks planner Josselyn Ivanov has studied the marked decline of drinking fountains in the U.S., remarking, “In the absence of investment and maintenance [in drinking fountains], many people fill the void by hauling around their own personalized infrastructure:” water bottles.

Even if these colorful vessels bring consumers a personal sense of calm and control, they pose detrimental consequences for communities, if investment doesn’t stretch beyond bottles.

Water bottles today communicate multiple consumer interests and anxieties: health, the environment, class standing, fashion, social media, data, and how to seek comfort and security during chaotic moments. If you set a hydration goal this year, buy a new water bottle if you need to, but take stock of what it really means to you and to the communities you’re part of, and care about.

Emily J.H. Contois is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa. She is the author of Diners, Dudes, and Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture and co-editor of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence, and Negotiation. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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