Nearing the end of the 19th century, two seemingly unrelated events at both ends of the world conspired to form the basis of that intriguing Tagalog word for the soft drink bottle’s metal cap – tansan.
In Baltimore, USA, inventor William Painter patented the crown cap in 1892 (and not surprisingly, the bottle cap opener in 1894), forever revolutionizing the sealing of soda pop bottles. Heretofore secured by cork stoppers, bottles often had rounded bottoms to prevent upright storage. Laying bottles on their sides constantly wet the corks and precluded them from drying out and shrinking, which would have caused the gas pressure to “pop” the corks. The metal crown cap solved this conundrum, and from that moment on, soda bottles could be stockpiled in vertical mode.
And in Kobe, Japan, Englishman John Clifford Wilkinson established the Clifford-Wilkinson Tansan Mineral Water Co., Ltd., using the mineral springs of Takarazuka to produce sparkling carbonated water. In 1889, while hunting near the mountains of the Hyogo Prefecture, Wilkinson had serendipitously stumbled upon the Tansan Springs, from whence he sourced the soon-to-be-acclaimed “Tansan” brand of aerated water. Registered as a trademark in Washington in 1896, “Tansan” would soon arrive on the shores of America’s newly colonized Philippine Islands in 1902, sealed by, naturally, a metal crown cap.
The U.S. Officers’ Guide, a ready reference on customs and correct procedures for American army officers stationed in Manila during the American era, instructed soldiers thus:
“Water. Only artesian, distilled or boiled water should be used for drinking or cleansing the teeth. Drinking water, either artesian or distilled, is furnished to the Army and Navy Club and to officers’ quarters upon request made to the utilities officer. There is artesian water at Fort McKinley, Rizal and Sternberg General Hospital, Manila, and at the Manila Hotel and other places. No drinking water should be used unless its quality is known to be satisfactory. There are such bottled waters as Isuan, Tansan, Red Rock, Royal, etc., which are good.”
In a further vote of confidence, The British Journal of Inebriety (April 1912 issue) described “Tansan” as an excellent sparkling table water possessing “tonic properties which render it of service for cases of anemia and general debility.”
The immense popularity of the “Tansan” brand was reflected in a number of attempts to infringe on the trademark. In its January 16, 1903 issue, an article in colonial-era newspaper The Manila American (as quoted by Butch Dalisay in his column Wardrobe Failure, The Philippine Star, February 16, 2004) reported that Mr. Wilkinson owned the brand, and that his competitors were illegally using it for marketing their own bottled water on the theory that “Tansan” was merely a descriptive word and not the proper subject of a trademark. A certain Judge Ambler was quoted as having said, “The evidence before me shows that the word “tansan” is a Japanese word meaning soda or carbonic acid, and I am inclined to think that either of these words alone are not descriptive of carbonated mineral water…it looks to me that the defendants were seeking to take advantage of the reputation enjoyed by the plaintiff’s (Wilkinson’s) water by imitating it as closely as they might the plaintiff’s trademark.” [Interestingly, 95 years later, San Miguel Brewery and Asia Brewery would face off at the Supreme Court over the use of the words “Pale Pilsen” on their respective beer bottles.]
The Singaporean The Straits Times also reported in the November 25, 1903 edition that Mr. Wilkinson had applied to the Supreme Court for an injunction against McAlister & Co. to restrain it from using the word “Tansan” as descriptive of the latter’s mineral water, as it “was intended to deceive the public.”
Not unexpectedly, the Swiss trading firm of Lutz & Zuellig (established in 1915, and eventually succeeded in 1922 by the F. E. Zuellig Inc.) was appointed sole distributors of “Tansan” in the Philippines. Much of the firm’s distribution business involved merchandise from Europe – textiles from England, metal goods from Germany, milk products from Switzerland and other commodities. [Source: A Sense of Balance – The Life of Stephen Zuellig, by Margaret Thomas, Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd, 2009]
Perhaps the ubiquity of the brand – seen in both printed media and outdoor signages – promoted the eventual use of the word as the now familiar Pinoy equivalent of the metal crown cap. Tracing the historical ties between Japan and the Philippines, historian Ambeth Ocampo notes in his column Making Useless Information Useful, Philippine Daily Inquirer, August 9, 2013, “In pre-war Manila, Tansan was a popular brand of fizzy water…It was sold with the distinct metal bottle caps that have since been called tansan by Filipinos.” A convenient, if not amazing, combination of history and happenstance appears to have solved this long-bottled up etymological mystery.