By Bob Barclay
In a London coffee house in the early days of 1749 a group of titled gentlemen sat around a table sipping their cups and playing whist at a shilling or two a rubber. The talk came around to practical jokes and japes, for which one of them in particular had a great fondness. John, the Second Duke of Montagu, is reputed to have said, "I wager that if somebody were to bruit it about that he could do the most impossible thing in the world, he would find fools enough in London to fill a playhouse who would think him earnest."
His friends quickly asked him what exactly he meant, smelling a hint of one of his infamous japes. He picked up an empty carafe from the table and said, "If I were to tell people that I could climb into this bottle and be seen within it upon the stage of a theatre, I wager I could put a bum on every seat."
They took up the challenge, placing wagers of many guineas, certain they would win a gamble on such an outrageous proposal. He set his challenge in motion. A theatre was booked – unbeknownst to its hapless owner – a playbill was duly written up, advertisements were placed in newspapers, and broadsheets were circulated: 'At the New Theatre in the Haymarket, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen, a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. first, he takes a common walking-cane from any of the spectators, and thereon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.’
The Haymarket Theatre was packed with gentry, including King George II’s son, the Duke of Cumberland, and many other titled courtiers. They had each paid as much as seven shillings and sixpence for a seat. On the stage before them was a wooden table with a green baize cloth, and upon it a quart bottle. No other accoutrements or devices were seen. There was no shade of movement from the curtain behind, nor was there music or other entertainment to distract and mollify the audience. Thus, they stood or sat, becoming increasingly impatient to witness the spectacle. Once the hour of seven o’-clock came the anticipation rose further, then as the hour passed the crowd became restive. A riot ensued and the theatre was comprehensively sacked, with the wooden interior fittings providing a huge bonfire in the street. There was no Bottle Conjuror. The crowd had been comprehensively gulled. But these were the cream of society; the educated, well-read class of gentry who set the tone for the nation. What gullible fools they must have been to be taken in by such a transparently implausible ruse.
Thus was hatched the hoax of the Bottle Conjuror, the 18th century’s greatest confidence trick.
Fast-forward two and a half centuries.
A soft drink company CEO called a staff meeting to discuss advances in the industry. He told his staff, "I wager that if somebody were to bruit it about that he could do the most impossible thing in the world, he would find fools enough to fill a hundred stadiums who would think him earnest."
His colleagues quickly asked him what exactly he meant, thinking that he must be joking. He picked up an empty soft drink bottle from the table and said, "I’ll bet I could put ordinary water into disposable plastic bottles just like this one and sell it to people at greater than the price of gasoline."
They took up his challenge, placing wagers of many dollars, certain they would win a gamble on such an outrageous proposal. He set his challenge in motion, concocting lists of beneficial chemicals to print on the labels, fostering and encouraging the myth of hydration, and giving new and appealing connotations to such words as ‘mineral’, ‘natural’ and ‘spring’. He even made turning a fresh water tap into an act of health-jeopardizing folly.
His strategy worked because he knew success thrives upon the secure knowledge that consumers will not ask obvious questions. The consumers of his bottled water will not demand why its cost is on a par with gasoline, why the water coming out of their taps is inferior, what ‘natural spring water’ actually is, or why it is necessary to keep swigging it at every opportunity. Billions of dollars have been sucked out of these mugs, secure in the knowledge that questions will not be asked, or explanation expected. It is not for nothing that Evian is the palindrome of naïve. What gullible fools they must have been to be taken in by such a transparently implausible ruse.
Thus was hatched the hoax of the Bottle Conjuror, the 21st century’s great confidence trick, and without doubt the biggest and most widespread fraud in history.
OWSAG thanks Bob Barclay for this guest post. Bob came to Canada from the UK in 1970. He is a novelist, craftsman, publisher and musical instrument maker. He discovered OWSAG just recently, but has been a plastic bottle hater - and a tap water lover - for many years.
Eric Schiller is a founding member of OWSAG and a retired University of Ottawa civil engineering professor.