Long before sparkling water with brand names like Polar, Perrier and La Croix crowded bodega refrigerators and apartment dwellers used household carbonators to bottle bubbling beverages themselves, New Yorkers relied on seltzer men to deliver refreshment in clanking glass bottles.
Eli Miller, one of the last of the old-fashioned seltzer men, covered a route in Brooklyn from 1960 until he retired in 2017. Mr. Miller died on March 12 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 86.
The cause was complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, his brother, Steven, said.
When Mr. Miller started his business, hundreds of seltzer men plied the streets; when he retired, there were only a handful. Through all of the intervening decades, he appeared at his customers’ homes bearing a wooden box of pewter-topped bottles filled with authentic seltzer.
“It’s not the stuff you buy in the plastic bottles in the store, which has about five pounds of pressure,” Mr. Miller said in a video that accompanied an article about him in The New York Times in 2013.
What Mr. Miller brought customers, he said, was triple-filtered New York City water, without salt, sugar or other additives, pressurized to about 60 to 80 pounds per square inch — perfect for enjoying plain or spritzing into an egg cream.
Gregarious, well read and engaging, Mr. Miller was welcomed by his customers as enthusiastically as the seltzer, and he enjoyed close friendships with many of them.
“I’m the product,” Mr. Miller was quoted as saying in “Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink” (2018), by Barry Joseph. “It’s not the seltzer. It’s all about Eli.”
Mr. Miller’s longevity in a disappearing business lent him a splash of fame. He was profiled by numerous publications and websites and became the subject of a children’s book, “The Seltzer Man” (1993), by Ken Rush, a longtime customer.
In 2013 Mr. Miller told The Times that he hoped to “die on the route.” But by 2017, when he was 84, the wearying job of carrying 70-pound cases of seltzer into homes had become too difficult.
“It’s too much wear and tear on my body,” he said, adding: “I can only do so much. I’m running on fumes.”
Mr. Miller did not want to relegate his customers, whom he considered family, to store-bought seltzer, which he described as “dreck.” So he sold his route to perhaps the city’s youngest seltzer man, Alex Gomberg, who was 29 at the time. Mr. Gomberg’s family owns Gomberg Seltzer Works in Canarsie, the last seltzer factory in the city; his business, Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, delivers seltzer to both longtime fans and new customers, like upscale saloons and restaurants in the borough.
Before his retirement Mr. Miller often reassured his customers by saying, “Old seltzer men never die — they just lose their spritzer.”
Eli Miller was born in Brooklyn on June 21, 1933. His father, Meyer, was a Jewish immigrant from Poland who worked as a house painter; his mother, May (Feinman) Miller, worked in a kosher bakery in Brooklyn. He grew up in the Brighton Beach area before graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School there in the early 1950s.
He studied business at Pace College (now Pace University), but left after three years for a job as a dividend clerk on Wall Street. But he hated the work and soon left to start his seltzer business.
At first he sold beer as well, but, his brother said, keeping a license to sell beer had proved too costly.
After Mr. Miller’s father retired, he helped on his son’s delivery route. In 1976 Meyer Miller collapsed during a delivery and died of a heart attack.
Mr. Miller was inducted into the Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame in 2017. His fellow inductees that year included the television personality Judge Judy Sheindlin and Ira Glasser, a former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Miller is survived by a sister, Sondra Rubenstein.
Mr. Miller said that there was one main reason he kept delivering seltzer long after the job had taken a physical toll.
“The rewards in this business are my customers,” he said in “Seltzertopia.” “We grew old together.”