the soda fountain! -- 6/25/21

Today's selection -- from Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation: The Life and Times of a Philadelphia Entrepreneur by Bill Double. In the early to mid-1800s, drink purveyors began to use carbonic acid gas from marble dust to add bubbles to water--and then add various flavors. Thus the age of the soda fountain was born:
"A … French im­migrant to the Quaker City may have been the nation's first commercial soft drink bottler. Around 1843 Eugene Roussel added lemon flavoring to bottled soda water to create a popular beverage that he sold at his perfume shop on Chestnut Street.

"A British immigrant who arrived in America in 1832 may fairly lay claim to the title of Father of the American Soda Foun­tain Industry. John Matthews learned to build soda-generating equipment while working as an apprentice in England. After opening a soda fountain at 55 Gold Street in New York, Mat­thews began to market his version of a soda-making apparatus. The process started in a 'generator,' consisting of a cast-iron box lined with lead, where carbonic acid gas was formed by mixing sulfuric acid (oil of vitriol) with marble dust. The gas was then purified by passing it through water and conducted into a tank partially filled with cool water. An employee rocked the tank for as long as half an hour, until the water was impregnated with bubbles. Matthews's firm would later purchase the scrap mar­ble created during the construction of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The marble, once pulverized, was said to have generated some twenty-five million gallons of soda water.
"These early rudimentary soda fountains spurred the growth of an industry for their manufacture. Matthews's company would become one of its leaders. But it was not alone. Several strong competitors entered the field, including companies started by Charles Lippincott of Philadelphia, William Gee of New York, and A. D. Puffer and James W. Tufts, both of Boston. Drugstore owners began supplementing their stocks of natural mineral wa­ters with artificially carbonated still water.

"Within a few years, soda fountain manufacturers were incor­porating an arsenal of syrup pumps into their increasingly elab­orate designs. Firms bottling flavored soda also were springing up around the country. The race to discover new flavors was on. Simple early fountains -- countertop boxes with taps for dispensing soda water generated by works under the counter -- grew more ornate as manufacturers strove to outdo their com­petitors. Fanciful edifices of multihued marble and onyx with soaring fixtures found a ready market among pharmacies and other soda sellers.

"Even the smallest fountains were as ornate as wedding cakes. Larger ones sporting silver-plated spigots, gilded piping, Grecian columns, and miniature statues of scantily clad god­desses evoked gasps of awe -- so did their prices, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars. For example, a drugstore on New York's West Side dazzled patrons with a 'temple of marble and silver. On top, under a crystal dome, a marble goddess in a continuous shower bath is surrounded by four nymphs. These are in turn guarded by four bronze knights in armor upholding gas jets.' Producing such works of popular art had grown so lucrative that by 1876 [that] two large manu­facturers, Lippincott and Tufts, ponied up the then staggering sum of $50,000 for the exclusive right to vend soda water from their fountains at the Centennial Exposition.

"Initially, some pharmacists dismissed the soda fountain as an intrusive nuisance. However, they soon grasped its potential benefit for their bottom lines, as a trade journal observed:

Retail druggists, who operate the greater fraction of the fountains, have for generations been sick of penny-a-sale profits and credit purchases which have barely enabled many of them to eke out a living. They have naturally hailed the soda fountain business with glee. A properly managed fountain business can be made to show a profit of 100 percent. 

"The article pointed out some additional advantages of operating a drugstore soda fountain:

The fountain business is a cash business. It advertises a store and induces the purchase of much [sic.] other goods. Foun­tains do not get out of date. There is no price cutting, no wrapping and tying, and no delivery expense. Little extra help is required, if any. And finally ... the fountain business has an all-the-year-round season.

"Soda fountains helped to sustain pharmacies following the Civil War when the cheaper products of drug manufacturers be­gan inexorably to displace pharmacist-prepared remedies. As fan­ciers of effervescent beverages increased soda fountain revenues, the neighborhood drugstore became a community meeting place for young and old alike. Enhancements such as ice cream and, later, luncheonettes further contributed to their profitability.

"Unlike taverns, almost exclusively a male domain, soda fountains afforded a pleasant social experience for all members of the family. Going to the soda fountain was an event. The marble counters and gleaming apparatus fostered a sense of wonder. 'Soda jerks' in crisp white jackets played to their audience, skillfully mixing drinks while bantering with customers:

Swift of hand, nimble of mind, dashing in appearance and charming to boot, the soda jerk came into his own as the big-city and small-town answer to the cowboy or the lum­berjack. True, he (only occasionally, she) referred to manuals called 'formularies' for the recipe of a Bonnie Belle Cream, Catawba Frappe or whatever happened to be in vogue that week, but still, soda jerking was high craft.

"Soda fountains at first appeared mainly in drugstores, but they soon popped up in ice cream parlors, department stores, and train stations. Large cities boasted freestanding fountains in public spaces."



Bill Double


Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation: The Life and Times of a Philadelphia Entrepreneur


Temple University Press


Copyright 2018 by William G. Double


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