Funny how words shift and evolve, isn’t it?
What starts out as one thing soon becomes another…
In the 1700s, a canteen was simply a supply store; it’s from the French (cantine, a sutler’s establishment) and Italian (cantina, a wine cellar or shop). But the meaning shifted in translation, and “canteen” soon became to mean the item we know so well…a small tin container for water or liquor.
Transporting water was always an issue—ancient nomads used animal bladders, closed tight with sinew and tied to camels for long crossings in the desert; shepherds hollowed out gourds, stuck a plug in the necks and hiked up to high pastures where they summered their flocks; cowboys made bags of leather and strapped them to saddles on cattle drives across the American west.
Some canteens were even made of thick colored glass—they were designed to transport liquors from distiller to market. I’ve found some in old house dumps behind old New England farmhouses, seen others in antique stores, and they are quite lovely on display.
My maternal grandfather spent some time in Italy before WWI; he was a pediatrician, and made many trips to Europe studying diseases of children. On one of his jaunts, he ended up in Florence (Firenze), where he purchased this lovely Pilgrim’s Flask for my grandmother. It originally had a leather cord attached to each of the lion heads on the shoulders of the bottle, but that’s been gone a very long time. My grandmother never drank anything but sherry (the sweeter the better—sweet enough to choke a bat, I hear!); I doubt she ever stashed any of the hard stuff in it, but I do remember the occasional floral arrangement on the kitchen table – bright flowers above the neck, stems pushed down inside.
Eventually, a canteen took the shape we know today – a roundish tin water bottle carried by people on the move – soldiers, travelers, those on the road; Girl and Boy Scouts used them (you bet we weren’t carrying booze, though!). They all had straps or clips or belts, they were sometimes covered with leather, flannel, or even wool.
Here’s one I found in one of my trusty old mail order catalogues (1930), not a lousy old tin canteen, but an aluminum one – “pure aluminum substantially constructed throughout. Screw top with safety chain. Well made outside cover khaki color lined with felt, long length adjustable shoulder straps.”
All that for $1.98.
Today, we pay that much for the fortified (electrolytes added!) water we carry inside…