Talk with the Soda Men of Atlanta (1885)

This is a great article from the June 7th, 1885 Atlanta Constitution detailed the state of affairs at the local soda fountains. The reporter interviews a local soda proprietor and gets all the goods.

One of the great things about this article is that it mentions Coca-Cola for the first time, though the reporter spells it “coco cola”. If you want more history on Coca-Cola check out the newspaper article from 1902 titled “They Thirst for Cocaine“.

In the article, the term mineral water would be what we consider Perrier or other spring-sourced water, carbonated or not. Soda water would be carbonated water, usually with a flavoured syrup and acid, like Acid Phosphate or Lactart.

Founts or fount is the short form of soda fountain and it was used a lot, so when you come across it, that is the way it was. The spelling of certain terms like pine apple and pineapple is used interchangeably in the article for some reason, as is milk shake and milkshake.

In the heyday of the soda founts, pineapple syrups were never made with real pineapple. One recipe from the Standard Manual of Soda called a combination of chloroform, acetic aldehyde, amyl butyrate, glycerin and alcohol with some yellow aniline dye to make a pineapple flavour. Often, these essences tasted better than pineapple, but as you read you will notice that for some reason they didn’t combine well with dairy products, which has piqued my curiosity.

Anyway, if you want a report on what soda fountains were like in Atlanta circa 1885, you can’t do much better than this article. It was a big influence for Fix the Pumps.

Talk with the Soda Men of Atlanta

The Soda Business of the City – The Business Done – Who Constitute the Best Partons? – The Gentlemen and the Ladies – The Mixture – Is There a Combination

There are many soda water fountains in Atlanta, likewise places where mineral waters, various beverages of pleasing taste and innocent effects are kept and sold.

Atlanta people liberally patronize these establishments. From early morn till dewy eve the counters are thronged with old and young of both sexes, eagerly waiting their time to be served. A more interesting sight cannot be found in the city, than that presented to one who takes up his place on the corner of Marietta and Peachtree. Perhaps half the soda water, milkshakes, acid drinks, and the score or more concoctions dispensed in the drinking department of a modern drug store, are consumed on the three corners, made by the intersection of Peachtree, Decatur and Marietta.

Located there are three of the largest and most popular soda founts in the city, the word soda fount being used in a very comprehensive sense, and intended to embrace all sorts and kinds of summer drinks. These three places are constantly crowded, and the patrons of the counters are not confined to any one class of the city’s people, but are on the contrary, as representative as they well could be. The popularity of these three places is not because of the fact that the soda they furnish is better than the soda elsewhere to be found. There is no doubt that just as palatable and as excellent a drink can be obtained elsewhere. The excellence of soda water rarely depends upon locality. True, the thickness of the glass in which it is served has much to do with the pleasure the beverage affords, the impression being the thinner the goblet the better the liquid: but so far as the soda itself is concerned, Whitehall Street, or any other street in the city, can find as many backers as any one of the establishments near the artesian well.

When, therefore, the fountains in the neighborhood of the well are taken as examples and illustrations of what will hereafter be said, the sole reason why they are selected is they are perhaps the most popular and are certainly as representative as any place of the kind within the limits of Atlanta.

“Do women drink more soda water than men?” queried the reporter of a white-aproned mixer.

“Strictly speaking, they do drink more soda water, but if you mean are women our best patrons, so far as my experience goes, they are certainly not. There was a day when the patrons of the fountains were almost entirely females; that time was when the fountains sold soda water only. Men could not gain their consent to fill their stomachs with a beverage that was so harmless that children could swallow it with impunity. Hence,” said my logical friend, “soda water was not popular with the gentlemen.”

“But the moment the fountain men began to put mineral waters on draught, that moment male patronage began to flow in. As you know, half the battle of the tradesman is won when he gets a fellow inside his store, and it was an easy step to induce men to try the soda and the other drinks for sale. Their prejudice was soon removed, and now today they constitute the bulk of my patrons,”

“Are not the fountains much improved or late years?”

“Oh, Lord, yes! Why, I’ve been in the business off and on about twelve years, and the fountain of today is as much an improvement upon the concern of 1870 as the sleeping car is upon the night coach of thirty years ago. When I first went into the business, the syrups were kept in tall bottles, with tin coverings; the fountain was a square-covered marble box, three feet by two in dimensions, with a very limited capacity. The decoctions sold under the name of soda water then were a vile set of stuffs, that would be indignantly refused today by a mere child.”

“The greatest improvement made besides that is the manufacture of syrup. Large establishments exist that do this work solely. It looks like a small affair at first, but when you come to think about it, to consider how many men are employed in obtaining the fruits, how much money it cost, and the work of extracting the juice and, converting it into the most delicate and palatable of syrups, when you sit down and begin to consider all the work necessary to the maintenance of the soda water industry, you will very soon come to the conclusion that it is a heap bigger thing than you at first imagined.”

“In 1870 the soda water fountain in most general use cost very little compared to the magnificent ones now seen. From four to five hundred dollars would cover the cost of the ordinary fountain, though here and there you found one that would go up in the thousands. Now, these cheap fountains are used entirely on the streets or in backwoods country towns, where they are regarded with as much admiration as they at one time excited among us.”

“A serviceable city fountain for an ordinary business in a city costs now anywhere from twenty-five hundred to twenty-five thousand dollars. There are fountains in Atlanta that cost the proprietors with all their appointments and equipments at least twelve thousand dollars and the investment is a good one!”

“There are several fountains in Atlanta that bring into their tills at the end of the year from five to six thousand dollars clear profit. The summer season is undoubtedly more profitable, but the receipts of the winter business pay handsomely, too.

“It is a well-known fact here that in one or two places it is the fountain that supports the establishment The profit upon a single glass is small, but thousands of glasses are sold. The profit varies with the drink served. Perhaps more money is made upon the glass of plain soda water, spiked with a little syrup. Sold at five cents, the profit made by the seller is anywhere from two to three cents per glass. Lemonade at the fountains sell at ten cents, and represent to the seller a profit of almost as much. When lemons are very low, as they are now, and have been for some time, the profit is much larger. But little money is made on milk shakes at five cents a glass, and for some reason or other milk shakes are not holding their popularity.”

“What is the most popular drink sold?”

“That Is a difficult question to answer. The variety of taste is something startling, and the mixtures the human appetite demands is at times simply appalling. As a rule, the men drink simple mixtures. They have never ceased to regard mineral waters with favor, and anything that is pleasantly acid commends itself to their taste.”

Acid phosphates, lime juice, concentrated fruit juice, are all popular drinks, and plain soda water without any syrup or flavor is often called for. Soda water is not a favorite with the males, and an ice cream soda is rarely called for by them. Ginger ale is popular enough if the price could be lowered but at 25 cents a bottle it has few calls.”

“How about the patent medicines?”

“Well, they are called for quite often. Moxie it a favorite with a good many, and the new drink coco cola is rapidly going to the front.”

“What is that, anyhow?”

“Well, It is nothing in the world but a simple nervine, and has a most pleasant effect upon the nervous system. A man fatigued with overwork, broken down from loss of rest, irritable, and nervous finds a most pleasant help from a glass of coco cola. It is absolutely harmless, and cannot be classed as a narcotic or an opiate. It creates no craving and is not likely to lead to any bad habits.”

“Men have a greater variety of drinks than women, that is, you take a hundred men and the drinks they will call for will cover a greater number of kinds than the same number of women would demand.”

“This has always seemed to me rather a curious phase of human nature, for it is the popular belief that of the two, woman’s appetite and taste is more vacillating and fickle than man’s. Soda water is a great beverage with the fair sex, and chocolate perhaps of all the syrups is the favourite provided chocolate is and has been regularly served. Some fountains are not regular, and it seems to me that chocolate is more frequently missed than any other. Strawberry is popular with ladies and children, and also vanilla, pine apple and nectar. When I come to think about it, I take back the chocolate business—it is very often called for here, but after thinking the matter over, I don’t know that it is more popular than those I have named.”

“Ice cream soda is a favorite with the ladies and the little ones. It is really one of the most pleasant mixtures we serve, though rarely asked for by men. The ladies like it for two reasons, first because it is good and second because it can be eaten with a spoon. A glass of soda with colored foam on top does not commend itself, especially to a woman when she is with a gentleman for whom she has some liking. It is awkward to get away with it without carrying upon her lip a mustache. By the way, have you ever noticed ladies drinking soda water? They invariably hold the glass in one hand and their handkerchief in the other, and between every sip they “Wipe off their lip!”

“A man never begins using his handkerchief until after he settles his score, and is half way out the place. Not so with the ladies. Therefore, anything that requires a spoon is more popular with them than beverages that require to be drunk, consequently, we sell a great deal of ice cream soda.”

“What are the peculiar mixtures you spoke of?”

“Well, in the first place, the most curious one to me, according to my way of thinking, and one that is most frequently called for is pineapple soda with cream, pineapple milkshakes and lemon and nectar. If there is anything on earth that is calculated to make man’s stomach rebel, it is pineapple ice cream. There ought to be a law against its manufacture. Indeed, anything that has milk or cream in it should not under any circumstances be flavoured with pineapple. The countryman in the city, taking in the town, and patronizing for the first time the soda water fount, will invariably choose pineapple and something else. To him, pineapple is the embodiment of all that is desirable and pleasant, and when he gets home and gets sick as he invariably does, after indulging in his pineapple and milk potations, it never once occurs to him the pineapple is the cause.”

“By itself, it is an excellent, and pleasant drink, and, as far as I know, harmless, but the moment it becomes associated with milk in an unlimited partnership, that moment it becomes an enemy of the state.”

“Of course, there are other strange mixtures, like sarsaparilla and strawberry, or the combination of any two ingredients that were not meant to be associated together. The people who call for them seem to relish them, and I do not know that anyone else should complain. But the greatest enemy the soda fount has is the injudicious mixer of syrups, who gets sick and ascribes his attack to the impunity of the syrups or the adulteration of something, when in fact it was the foolish mixture that caused the sickness.”

“Say, do you know?”

“Know what?”

“Well, its kinder charged that the soda fountains in Atlanta are pooled, that they are managed by an executive board, and, in other words, that it has become a blasted monopoly.”

“Who says so?”

“Oh, well, I have heard it, I don’t know now exactly who told me, but I heard it and you can find lots of people who believe it.”

“Well, it ain’t so, so far as I am concerned. I know very well that I divide profits with no one, and I know that my business is run only with two ideas, the satisfaction of my customers and own individual profit. And yet…”

“And yet?”

“And yet, I don’t know why such a combination should not exist. It might do good and there again, it might not. It would be a good thing to the small fountains, but,” here he fell into a fit of musing, “I cannot see how it would benefit the larger fountains.”

One thing is certain—a big and rushing business is done in soda water and temperance drinks in Atlanta every day. Ten thousand glasses are sold in three places in the city is the estimate of a safe adviser.

And the business has trebled since prohibition has been in effect.

June 7th, 1885 Atlanta Constitution

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Beverage Business (1886)