I’ve been at the history books again, (namely Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains by Anne Cooper Funderburg and Darcy O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps), this time looking at soda fountains. The soda fountain was at the centre of the traditional soda experience. The fountain - both the establishment and the dispenser - is a staple of American history. What we now think of as a remnant of a long-gone, Grease-is-the-word type era, once was the life and soul of american urban culture.
Soda fountains brought communities together. They provided a place where you could catch up on gossip, hang out and stay in touch with the neighbourhood. They were frequented by regulars, who knew one another, and were known to the staff. Their popularity threatened even the local saloons - soda fountains were the place to be. Yet despite the ongoing love for soda in the USA, the soda fountain has fallen out of fashion. In 1911, it is estimated that there were some 126,000 fountains in the country. Today there aren’t even 100.
The story of the soda fountain reflects that of soda itself. What started off as something solely functional soon developed into an elaborate and contrived pastime at the height of its popularity. Then, soda began to return to its roots, and the fountains became less ornate and more practical, stripped down to the essentials, allowing for convenience and speed.
The soda fountain’s humble beginning was as an apparatus used to make, store and dispense medical carbonated water in pharmacies. The first fountains were lead-lined boxes, inside which sulphuric acid and powdered marble were mixed to produce CO2. This CO2 was then sent to a tank of cool water and manually shaken for half an hour to dissolve. The newly carbonated water could be dispensed from a tap and added to flavoured syrups. This process was not without its dangers and it wasn’t uncommon for earlier soda fountains to explode if the contents were mixed poorly, taking out both pharmacy staff and customers at the same time.
Over time, the mechanical teething problems were sorted out. Due to the relatively low start-up costs, plus the convenience of being able to make carbonated water right on the shop floor, soda fountains grew in popularity. Within a few years of invention, there were an estimated 670 in New York City alone.
Fountains stayed in pharmacies until the 1950s and began to take up huge parts of the stores. In order to boost sales, fountain proprietors began to jazz-up their machines, making them more attractive and worthy of their ever-growing clientele. In 1858 the world’s first soda fountain to be made from marble was operated, and then patented, by G.D. Dows. Dows had started a trend, and soon it was hard to find a soda fountain which wasn’t in some way decorated with ornamental urns and marble columns, or bedecked with over the top Tiffany lamps and fancy Favrile glasswork. Soda fountains had become the height of fashion, if not taste.
By 1875 there was a soda fountain in pretty much every American city, and by the 1890s they had reached Europe, with fountains in London and Paris. America had the monopoly on the soda craze, though, and by 1911 there were over 100,000 fountains across the country, serving up to 8 billion drinks each year. At this point, soda was so popular that the fountains began to compete with local bars, and people were even installing fountains in their homes.
But it wasn’t to last, and by the beginning of the twentieth century change was coming. The communal glasses used to serve soda were rarely cleaned properly, and people called for more hygienic, individual disposable paper cups to be used instead. Gone was the need to linger at the fountain, and they became less sociable places.
After the First World War, a new tax aimed at paying off the war costs directly targeted soda fountains. They became increasingly expensive to run and prices had to be raised. Bottled beverages escaped these taxes, so instead there was a move towards serving soda in individual bottles.
The prohibition and the Second World War saw a revival of non-alcoholic drinks, and so the soda fountain soldiered on, but gone were the elaborate machines of the past. They were replaced instead with stark, stainless-steel fountains which bore little resemblance to their more sightly ancestors. As bottled soda came to be served everywhere, the fountains had become defunct.
At the same time cars were becoming more accessible and people were moving from the city to the suburbs. Gone were the regular customers who walked to the fountain for a soda. The fountains themselves had been replaced by diners and cinemas with their bottled drinks, and by the 1950s soda fountains were frequented, not by the whole neighbourhood like before, but instead by teenagers looking for somewhere to hang out. Soda had become a thing for kids.
Sundae Best - Anne Cooper Funderburg
Fix The Pumps - Darcy O'Neil
Soda Fountain Catalogue 1904.
Brooklyn pharmacy 1905.
The Practical Soda Fountain Guide 1911.
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