Brief History of the Soda Fountain: The Drug Store & Ice Cream Parlor – Once Parts of American Culture

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The soda fountain had its origins in ancient history when man first discovered the health benefits of carbonated water. Later men would use the product in different ways.

The Background

The soda fountain, once the mainstay of drug stores and ice cream shops, can trace its origins to centuries back. Since ancient times people had used mineral water from naturally carbonated springs because of its supposed medicinal and therapeutic benefits. The Romans often established settlements near such sites, such as the present-day Bath in England. By the 1700s, early health spas were common throughout Europe and in parts of America such as Sarasota Springs in New York. In 1767, the English clergyman and scientist Joseph Priestlley, discovered a process for artificially carbonating water, and in the early 1770s the Swedish chemist Torben Bergman created an apparatus which used carbonic gas to create artificial mineral water, a process which was perfected by Jacob Schweppe, a German born Swiss jeweler.

Development of Soda Water

In the early 1800s, the production of carbonated, or soda, waters exploded throughout Europe and North America. Benjamin Silliman, a Yale University chemistry professor, made a short-lived attempt to bottle and sell seltzer water. In 1809, an English migrant and apothecary, Joseph Hawkins of Philadelphia sold soda water for six cents a glass at his establishment and patented a device to pump the water from his basement to the ground floor. Ten years later, Dr. Walter Fahnestock patented the first true “soda fountain”, a barrel-shaped instrument with a pump and spigot to dispense the water. In 1832, John Matthews of New York patented the first compact and easy to use soda fountain.

Carbonated Water Becomes Flavored

It is not known definitely who first came up with the idea of adding flavors to carbonated water. Professor Silliman sometimes added wine and sugar to his bottled product and, at about the same time, a Philadelphia physician, Dr. Philip Physick, was selling a flavored carbonated health tonic called “Neophyte Julep.” However, it was a transplanted Frenchman, Eugene Roussel, also of Philadelphia, who is credited with popularizing the idea of flavored water. In the late 1830s, Roussel added a “soda counter” to his perfume shop where customers could buy glasses of soda water flavored from a choice of orange, cherry, lemon, teaberry, ginger, peach, and root beer syrups. His concoctions were well received and within a short time Roussel had nearly fifty competitors in the city alone.

Soda Fountains become an Institution

By the end of the Civil War, soda fountains had become popular across the nation. Encouraged by temperance groups, the “soda fountain” became a generic term for a place where people could gather in a social setting without the presence of alcohol. Since carbonated water was first created by people with some chemistry background and touted for its medicinal benefits, it was only natural that most early soda fountains became associated with drug stores. However, by the late 1800s specialized “soda shops” and “ice cream parlors” were also appearing on the scene, and by 1900 places which had soda fountains outnumbered saloons in New York City alone. Helping this popularity was the addition of more ingredients to the basic flavored drink. In 1874, either by accident or design, Robert M. Green, a soft drink vendor, added ice cream to his carbonated water, thus creating the first ice cream soda. A few years later, in either Two Rivers, Wisconsin, or Evanston, Illinois (both cities lay claim), the first ice cream sundae – basically, an ice cream soda without the soda – was created. Also, phosphates, flavored carbonated water spiked with phosphoric acid, had become popular.

The glory years of the “soda fountain” lasted from 1890 until the 1960s, becoming social centers for young and old alike. As gathering places, they usually had in common marble-topped counters and tables, wired-back chairs, shining mirrors, and glass and chrome serving dishes and glasses. Each, also, was presided over by the master of the ice cream soda, and the sundae – the “soda jerk,” who, if skilled enough, was as much fun to watch creating his or her masterpiece as it was in consuming it.