Soda Fountains

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Soda Fountains

The classic American soda fountain was defined as much by its atmosphere as by what it served. Light, cool, and airy places furnished with marble-topped counters and tables, shining mirrors, and sparkling glass and chrome serving dishes, soda fountains began springing up in the early nineteenth century, and kept essentially the same formula until the 1950s. The bill of fare was simple: carbonated beverages and, later, ice cream and combinations thereof. In the heyday of the soda fountain (roughly 1890-1940) one could order a tempting variety of dishes, from an ice-cream soda (soda water and ice cream) to an ice-cream sundae (ice cream topped with nuts and a chocolate or fruit sauce) to a plain soda (carbonated water with fruit syrup mixed in).

For millennia, people have partaken of bubbly mineral water that came from natural springs, which was thought to have therapeutic qualities. After chemists figured out how to make artificially carbonated water, apothecaries and later drug stores featured it as one of their many curatives. In 1770 a Swede named Bergman produced the first artificially carbonated water, and by 1806 Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale was manufacturing bottled water in Hartford, Connecticut. Early in the nineteenth century druggists began carbonating water in their basements, installing a readily accessible spigot on the first floor to serve customers. Before long the local literati were gathering at the drug store, making it a common meeting place and establishing the soda as a social beverage.

In 1832, John Matthews of New York City invented the first compact soda-water machine and dispenser unit, which popularized the drink and gave tavern owners their first stiff competition. Six years later, Eugene Roussel, a Philadelphia perfume maker, combined fruit syrups with this carbonated water, making the first flavored sodas, including orange, cherry, lemon, teaberry, ginger, peach, and root beer.

The ice-cream soda was not invented until about 1874, at the Franklin Institute Exposition in Philadelphia, when Robert M. Green, a soft drinks vendor, ran out of cream and substituted ice cream in his drinks. This new libation quickly became a national institution. By 1876, helped along by the Centennial Exposition's 30-foot-high fountain, soda fountains replaced ice-cream saloons as the fashionable place for the elite to patronize and see the wonders of technology at work. By 1900 common brand names sold at soda fountains included Hires Rootbeer, Moxie, Dr. Pepper's, and Coca-Cola, the "great national temperance drink."

Prohibition greatly increased the popularity of the soda fountain. By the 1920s the improvement of refrigeration allowed these places to serve meals as well, and soda fountains were incorporated into department stores, luncheonettes, grocery stores, tobacco shops, and five-and-dime stores. While they were popular with all Americans, teenagers frequented soda fountains the most. Soda jerks, named for the way they jerked the handles used to extract fruit syrups from the pumps, worked behind the counter making the sometimes complicated concoctions for the patrons—anything from a Brown Cow to a Bonnie Belle Cream to a Catawba Frappe. Usually good-looking men, soda jerks were a popular attraction to their customers, and even had their own lingo. For example, "shoot (or hang) an honest" meant a cherry coke, "one sweet" or "pull one" referred to milk, "Adam and Eve on a raft" translated as two eggs on toast, a "ninety-five" described someone trying to get away without paying, and "thir-teen!" warned that the boss was around.

Such a familiar icon in popular culture, the soda fountain appeared in plays and movies: people drank strawberry sodas at the fountain in Our Town, it appears as the place of courtship in the 1919 movie True Heart Susie, and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland flirted over sodas in the 1938 film Love Finds Andy Hardy. The legendary soda fountain at Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood was supposedly the place where young hopefuls went to get noticed by the film industry; legend has it that Lana Turner was "discovered" there in 1937.

The "golden days" of the soda fountain were from the end of the nineteenth century to the early 1940s. During the World War II years, soda jerks got drafted, sugar was rationed, manufacturers of soda equipment had to retool for the war effort, and fountain operators saw larger profits in goods like cosmetics and nylon stockings. After the war there was a brief resurgence in soda fountains, but the business was never again as popular as it had been earlier in the century. Americans turned to ready-made food, and began motoring to the new fast-food restaurants sprouting up along the nation's highways, spelling the demise of the time-consuming ice-cream soda and its attendant institution, the soda fountain.

—Wendy Woloson

Further Reading:

Dickson, Paul. The Great American Ice Cream Book. New York, Atheneum, 1972.

Jonas, Susan, and Marilyn Nissenson. Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1994.

Morrison, Joseph L. "The Soda Fountain." American Heritage. August 1962, 10-19.

Riordan, John Lancaster. "Soda Fountain Lingo." California Folklore Quarterly. Volume 4, 1945, 50-57.

Schwartz, David M. "Life Was Sweeter, and More Innocent in Our Soda Days." Smithsonian. Vol. 17, July 1986, 114-24.