A Short History of the Soda Fountain

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.

8 thoughts on “A Short History of the Soda Fountain”

    1. Fire that puppy up, HBM! You won’t be sorry. I really is a whole different experience from store bought seltzer.

      – Joe

  1. There was a great article in the NY Times a few years ago that placed a spotlight on new businesses trying to reclaim and elevate soda fountain drinks and processes.


    The closing comments of the article from one of the business owners highlights the danger of nostalgia and the earnest desire to succeed on their own merits.

    Hope this is relevant and/or interesting.

    1. Neato! Thanks Doug. It’s tough to find a soda fountain that isn’t built solely on nostalgia, that’s for sure. Most of the ones that are still around are in those hyper-annoying neo-Happy Days restaurants. Every so often you find something more genuine though. I went to one in Asheville North Carolina last year…it was a relic in an old pharmacy, but it didn’t feel sentimental. It was just good ice cream!


      – Joe

  2. When I was a child, my Grandmother treated me to soda fountain drinks at her home. She had Seltzer delivered to her home (they entertained a lot). They delivered it to the back door and put the seltzer bottles (yes..the same ones the Marx Brothers sprayed each other with in those old movies) in an ice box that was the same as those used for milk delivery. ( Oh my God! This memory is making me feel so old!) Along with the seltzer bottles were syrups. She always had cola, root beer, orange, cherry and grape syrups. I just loved squirting the seltzer into the glass to make my own cherry cola..with as much cherry as I wanted, too!

  3. I have no doubt that the American history here is a separate one. But the French had been at this for quite some time.

    From 1785:
    “Le quinquina & le vin de Bordeaux n’ontils point contribué encoie plus que l’eau gazeuse , à la guérison du malade?”

    “Have not quinquina and Bordeau contributed more than gassy [carbonated] water to the cure of the sick?”

    From 1835:
    ” Eau de seltz factice.
    La grande consommation qui se fait maintenant de cette eau gazeuse, nous a fait penser que beaucoup de personnes seraient satisfaites d’en connaître la préparation, qui est peu coûteuse.”

    “Fake Seltzer water
    The great consumption now made of this carbonated water made us think that many people would be satisfied to know its preparation, which is very inexpensive.”
    [directions follow, and then recipes for carbonated lemonade and fake Champagne]

    From 1838:
    “In our last article on this subject, we directed the attention of our readers to the copiousness of the Codex in the matter of syrups, as indicating the luxury of our neighbours; the list of carbonated waters is another proof of the same kind. While our Pharmacopoeia contains but two, the Codex offers eleven to the patient who wishes to get well agreeably; the eau gazeuse simple, eau de Seltz artificielle, eau alkaline gazeuse, eau de sonde carbonatie (soda water), eau de Vichy artificielle, eau de Mont-Dore artificielle, eau de Bourbonne, eau magnisiemte, eau magnisienne gazeuse, eau de Sedlitz artificielle, and eau de Spa artificielle—all invite his attention, and promise relief to the most queasy stomach.
    The first on the list contains nothing but carbonic acid gas; but the framers of the work observe that by putting two ounces of syrup of lemon-juice into each bottle before it is filled with the carbonated water, a very agreeable beverage is obtained, known under the name of effervescing lemonade (limonade gazeuse); and that by varying the syrup, a great number of acidulous and sweet drinks may be thus prepared.
    In spite, however, of the advance in luxury, which eleven carbonated waters would seem to indicate, we are inclined to think that the consumption of soda water alone in England far exceeds that of all the carbonated waters put together in France; and this suspicion is strengthened by the direction to pour the eau gazeuse simple into twentyounce bottles—a dose too large to be often taken.
    Our gastritic readers will thank us for mentioning that the eau de Seltz artificielle is frequently to be met with in continental hotels; and though we would not pledge ourselves that it always contains, as the Codex requires, chloride of calcium, chloride of magnesium, chloride of sodium, carbonate of soda, phosphate of soda, and sulphate of soda; yet we can state from our own experience, that it is always most plentifully charged with carbonic acid. The real Seltzer water contains much less. ”

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