Saturday, October 4, 2014

Soda Fountains -- A Sweet Memory of the Past

By Pamela S. Meyers

In my small Wisconsin town where I grew up, Main Street was the center of commerce. In addition to the bank, a couple grocery stores, the post office, and assorted other businesses, the town supported three drugstores, two of which had a soda fountain. A candy shop next door to the movie theater also had a fountain. Those procurers of ice cream delights and fizzy drinks are what stand out the most in my childhood memories.
A typical mid-20th Century soda fountain 

You could slide onto one of the stools and order anything from a cherry Coca-Cola to a chocolate soda or a banana split. And when I became a teenager, the fountain next to the movie theater was the go-to place after the "show."  Lest you think I must be older than dirt, those soda fountains were in existence as late as the early 1970s. And I'm glad they stuck around so that I could have a taste (pun intended) of what having a soda fountain was like.

An early soda fountain, circa early 1900s

I recently researched the history of soda fountains and learned that they made the scene in the 1880s when Jacob Bauer invented carbon dioxide tanks which enabled the selling of carbonic soda drinks. Before 1914, when congress banned the inclusion of opiates and cocaine (yes they were once legal)  in over the counter products, it was very common to purchase drinks that contained these addictive drugs along with herbs and flavorings. After the ban, the image of soda fountain drinks changed from intoxicating to non-intoxicating.  

Before refrigeration was available, soda fountains relied on ice to keep the drinks cool and the ice cream frozen. Ice was supplied by ice companies who harvested ice from frozen lakes and ponds during winter and stored the large blocks in ice houses that were insulated with straw. See my earlier Post on History of Ice Harvesting  for more detailed information on the history of ice cutting.

For decades, fountains could be found in nearly every pharmacy, and also in department stores, dime stores, candy shops and other businesses. They were the social hub of small towns and neighborhoods. Soda jerks, as the men who worked behind the counter were called, memorized the recipes for making special drinks, in the same way bartenders today can mix a specific drink without having to consult an instruction manual. Wide-eyed kids and adults alike would watch as the soda jerk built their sodas from the scoops of ice cream to the syrup, carbonated water, nuts and a bright red cherry. Oh, don't forget the whipped cream! 

In the 1920s, when prohibition became the law and bars closed, the popularity of soda fountains grew more as people flocked to the establishments to connect with others and enjoy a sweet treat at the same time. 

Today, you can still find soda fountains scattered around whose owners work hard to maintain them as true replicas of a time lost to history. Thomas Drugs (pictured on the left),  in White House, Tennessee has a fountain. 

Do you have memories of a soda fountain from your past? Or have you been to one recently that is a replica of one?

A native of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, author Pamela S. Meyers lives in suburban Chicago with her two rescue cats, an hour's drive away from her Wisconsin hometown which she visits often to dig into its historical legacy. Her novels include Thyme for Love, and Love Will Find a Way, contemporary romantic mysteries and her 1933 historical romance, Love Finds You in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. She can often be found nosing in microfilms and historical records about Wisconsin and other Midwestern spots for new story ideas.


  1. No soda fountains when/where I grew up that I was aware of at the time, but while working on my maternal genealogy I found photos of my mom standing in front of the local soda shoppe. Then while checking Facebook for her town's Vintage Pages, I found a pic of the interior of the same soda shoppe along with teens her age sitting around a table with their shakes and floats. She wasn't one of them, but i could 'see' her there, you know?

    Thanks for the post, Pam.

  2. I'm an MK and only have distant memories of rare sightings of soda fountains when we came on furloughs every 4 years. I do remember rootbeer floats, the chrome stools with red leather/plastic seats, and the tubs of icecream. Thanks for your post. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com