Healthful spring waters were the inspiration for the very first soda fountains. Not every person in the 1800’s could afford a trip to Nimes, Efca or Lake Balaton to treat their various ills. The next best thing, so the entrepreneurs of the day reasoned, was to bring a little of the healing waters to them. And so the bottled water industry was born, the noble intentions of which probably lasted a full five and a half seconds…about as long as it took those same entrepreneurs to realize that nobody living in Peoria would be able to tell Lourdes water from bath water by the time the stuff arrived at the local pharmacy.
So quite a lot of imitation spring and mineral waters began popping up, many of them carbonated. Some of course masqueraded as the real thing, others pretended to be nothing more than they were: man-made, but presumably still possessing the magical healing powers of the genuine article.
In time soda fountains began to deliver other types of “curatives”. Plain mineral or carbonated water was frequently spiked with some sort of health tonic. Most of it was pure snake oil, but some delivered a genuine kick: large doses of caffeine or other stimulants (like diluted cocaine), even narcotics like opium. Which had a fabulous impact on business. Real drugs cure real aches and pains, at least temporarily. The fact that serious habits were frequently formed eventually earned soda fountains a reputation as refuges for dope fiends.
Fortunately, soda fountains began to earn their reputations back in the early 1900’s as laws like the Harrison Act began to be passed, preventing the retail sale of addictive drugs. From then on “soft drinks” were the order of the day. As Jacob Baur, owner of Liquid Carbonic Company, an innovator in the manufacture and sale of carbonated water put it: “it isn’t medicinal, won’t cure anything, isn’t intoxicating or habit forming – it’s just flavory, fruity, snappy, sparkling, delicious.” Now that’s good ad copy.
But what really put soda fountains over the top was prohibition. As bars closed down and liquor sales dried up starting in 1920, people who once gathered to drink and socialize in bars needed new outlets. Sit-down counter service had been a feature of most soda fountains since the turn of the century, now they were packed with the former patrons of corner saloons. Ice cream sodas, it turned out, were as addictive as booze.
No, not really. Which is why people partied until they passed out when prohibition was repealed in 1933. Yet soda fountains had become an entrenched part of American culture by then, and they remained as popular as ever. What eventually killed the soda fountain? Lots of historians like to lay the blame at the feet of soda bottlers, supermarkets and evil “packaged foods” purveyors. And while all of those things surely played a part in the demise of soda fountains, the thing that really killed them was the Second World War. For World War II deprived soda fountains not only of the jerks who ran them (and I use that term in the best possible sense), it took away many of their essential ingredients (sugar syrups, chocolate, etc.).
While it is true that soda fountains did regain a bit of their former glory in the 50’s, much of the appeal was bound up with rock n’ roll music and juke boxes. Home stereos, it seems, did as much to sink soda fountains as anything else. Nowadays to get a taste of what a soda fountain was all about, we have to take matters into our own hands.