The History of Water Softeners

on July 25, 2018 water softener

One of the most significant public health achievements of the 20th century, without a doubt according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is public water disinfection and treatment.

In 1908, Jersey City, New Jersey was the first city in the United States to begin routine disinfection of community drinking water, states the CDC website, and over the next decade, thousands of cities and towns across the U.S. followed suit contributing to a dramatic decrease in disease across the country.

Water softening is a treatment method for water, but unlike purification methods that evolved for the protection of human health and clean drinking water, water softening developed to help prevent industrial and domestic headaches.

What is hard water?

Hard water is water that is high in dissolved minerals, especially calcium and magnesium. The minerals are harmless to human health but contribute to build-ups of solid deposits of calcium carbonate in boilers and industrial equipment, as well as household appliances like dishwashers and washing machines. The scaling raises the costs of heating the water, lowers the efficiency of the devices and clogs pipes. Not to mention, it makes it hard to get things clean, and it doesn’t taste as good.

Water hardness varies through the United States, as you can see on this map provided by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science School.

water hardness map

What is a water softener?

A water softener addresses the problem of hard water by removing the excess minerals in your water and replacing them with salts.

There are several types of water softeners available, including salt-based ion exchange softeners and electronic or magnetic water softeners. In homes, the most common form of water softener used is the salt-based ion exchange softener, which works by cycling water through two tanks. It substitutes sodium for the hard minerals in the water through an ion exchange process.

Who invented the water softener?

The history of the water softener is fuzzy, to say the least. Most sources agree that water softening dates to the early 1900s, and a man you may have heard of, Emmett Culligan, helped make water softening possible in the residential market. The dates aren’t precise. Some websites say the 1920s. Culligan Water’s own history section on its website states merely 1936.

We turned to the Smithsonian archives, as opposed to Google, to see if we could get any solid answers but that didn’t turn up anything significant. Maybe the American Water Work Association? We couldn’t find anything on their website, so we submitted a request for more information. We’ll update you if we get a response.


Despite the lack of information on the history of the water softener, there’s a mountain of information out there on salt. If you want to learn more about the history of salt, the key ingredient in water softeners, you may want to read the book Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.

As New York Times reviewer Regina Schrambling said in her 2002 review, “This is indeed a world history of salt. But it is also a history of the world as seen through those white crystals. To an almost absurd extent, he finds the salt connection nearly everywhere. The Erie Canal? Built for the sake of salt, which needed to be moved from the upstate Onondaga region to New York City. The West Indian slave trade? Underwritten by sales of salt, even more than by molasses and rum, as most history books have it. The tangled network of roads across North America? Credit the trails animals plodded as they searched for salt licks.”

Impressive right? What’s also remarkable is that all our installed water softeners at Advantage come with 100 lbs. of solar salt — salt which is free of impurities and ready to use. With regular usage, this salt will last for your first 2 months.

If you need a water softener in your home or business, call the professionals at Advantage Water Conditioning for a free expert consultation.

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