Selling Nature: Mountain Valley Water

My latest research project centers on Mountain Valley Water, a premium bottled water company located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 1928, the company became the first nationally-distributed bottled water, with its distribution network stretching from California to New York City. And Mountain Valley proudly proclaims that everyone from presidents to celebrities to racehorses have quaffed the beverage. (Eisenhower once mentioned the company by name in a press conference, and the famed Secretariat was even a patron.)

My newest position at the Arkansas School For Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts is a great gig, but with a 5/5 teaching load I don’t have an overabundance of time for research. Not only is Mountain Valley a local company, meaning it was fairly easy to find primary sources, but its corporate identity well fits into my research interests.

The longer paper argues that Mountain Valley’s history represents interconnected issues of nature, health, and capitalism. For this shorter blog post, however, I just wanted to share two interesting advertisements I had found. They give a brief glance into this company’s fascinating history and these larger themes.

The first one is from the Arkansas Gazette, printed on 6 November 1939. Hot Springs, essentially from the outset of its human discovery, has possessed a reputation for being a healthy place. The springs that bubbled forth were revered as a natural cure for any number of diseases, especially rheumatism. As can be seen in the advertisement, Mountain Valley emphasized not only that consuming its water could improve human health, but also that the product was the “natural aid” to do so.

In another ad, this one from the Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), printed on 11 November 1939, Mountain Valley leveraged the same notions. On a basic level, the ad describes how, long before Euro-American settlers conquered the area, American Indians knew of the water’s supposedly curative properties. Through this line of argument, the advertisement augmented previous health claims with a notion of permanence.

But by hearkening back to Indian land usage and environmental understandings, the company drew upon popular notions of Nativeness to emphasize a connection to the natural world. As Shepherd Krech argued in The Ecological Indian (1999), popular stereotypes of Indians portrayed them as both “ecologist and conservationist,” particularly as “noble savages.” (The etymology of “savage” is originally from the Latin, meaning woodlands—silva.) In this case, advertising that American Indians used the area to cure illnesses bolstered claims of the springs' natural powers and emphasized Mountain Valley’s connection to the environment.

Unsurprisingly, a great many other Mountain Valley Water advertisements exist—brochures, pamphlets, newspaper ads, etc.—the company even ran a Time magazine campaign in 1940. But since its founding in 1871, as I hope to show in longer, published formats, the company developed an identity predicated on connecting a salubrious natural world to wholesome bodies. Healthy environments in this case meant healthy bodies, and hopefully healthy profits.

Images are courtesy of the Garland County Historical Society's archives.