Soda Fountain History

Carbonated beverages are a resounding success, with Americans drinking 13 billion gallons (58 billion litres) of soda-pop every year. That’s about 3 quarts (3 L) per person, per week. Americans account for about half of the worldwide consumption. Considering that the US is only 5% of the world’s population, it’s safe to say Americans love their soda.

Drinks are one area of cuisine where Americans have been exceptionally creative. The cocktail and soda fountain are both American inventions. They reached their peak in periods where choice, quality and service were the battlegrounds. Today, brand, speed and price are considered premiums and quality is an afterthought. The drive for efficiency, power and the almighty buck have decimated that creativity and turned carbonated beverages into industrial products of commerce served from a cold faceless machine.

The soda fountain was once an equivalent to the local saloon and the comparisons are obvious. Prior to prohibition, both cocktails and sodas were creative, well balanced drinks but evolved over the years to become synthetic mixtures laced with gads of sugar. Cocktails are only starting to recover after decades of abuse. The soda has shown no such signs of returning to its prior glory. The creative history of the soda fountain is quickly fading away.

There are meagre attempts at resurrecting the soda fountain, but the original recipes for drinks, like phosphates and lactarts, have been concealed in old, forgotten texts. Without this knowledge, imitative ingredients have been substituted into the recipes, but bear little resemblance to the original. The fountains of today are poor forgeries of their historical inspiration.

In 1919, there were 126,000 soda fountains in the United States alone. Today there are probably less than 100, and very few, if any, are as grand as they were at the peak of their popularity.

The only modern equivalent to the classic soda is the so-called “;Italian soda”. Browsing the Internet creates the belief that the combination of carbonated water and flavour syrup originated with two Italian immigrants, Rinaldo and Ezilda Torre. The story says they began making flavour syrups—with recipes from their hometown of Lucca, Italy—in their San Francisco grocery store in 1925. They mixed the syrups with soda and introduced America to the classic “;Italian soda”.

This is definitely not the case and is actually an instance of revisionist history created by the San Francisco syrup company Torani, whose founders just happened to be Rinaldo and Ezilda Torre. There is no doubt they created syrups, but it is apparent that the Torre’s usurped the soda concept from the flourishing American soda fountain. Flavoured soda water is clearly an American invention.

Older generations may remember the last incarnations of the soda fountain, and occasionally some look to resuscitate their favourite drink to briefly reconnect with the past. However, information is limited on how these drinks were made. Most of the recipes were created by pharmacists and kept within the trade. Unlike cooking and cocktails, many of the recipes used pharmaceutical extracts, chemicals and tinctures whose access was limited to the profession.

Other issues, such as the system of measurements, caused confusion. Instead of ounces, grams and millilitres pharmacists would use scruples, grains, and minims written in a cabalistic apothecary script. Many of the recipes were kept secret, for competitive purposes, while others were published in pharmaceutical journals. These journals were rarely available to the public and, if they were, they came with a significant price tag and a jumble of cryptic terms. They did not want everyone to know their trade secrets—that was bad for profits.

Secrets could not be kept forever and many of the recipes were eventually made public, but a large number of them remained locked in the pharmacist’s guides and books. Many of these pharmacy manuals saw limited distribution and can be hard to find, but not impossible. Older universities may have copies of these publications—probably unopened for decades.

One of the earliest soda fountain books available to the public was titled (1890). It was written by a man named De Forest Saxe as a recipe guide and soda dispensing manual. Prior to this, most guides on the subject were published by the fountain manufacturing companies. These were more like operating manuals with basic recipes.

Saxe published many of his own recipes and techniques for making drinks, a rare and charitable occurrence at the time. In a way, De Forest Saxe could be compared to pioneering bartender for his willingness to publicly document the methods most preferred to keep secret.

With the disappearance of the soda fountain, and effective market domination by a handful of multinational beverage manufacturers, drinks like lactarts and cherry phosphate vanished, leaving their stories consigned to the dusty old texts of history.

The vision most people have of the soda fountain is limited to the 1950s movie genre. However, the truly interesting history occurs at the turn of the 20th century and gives a surprisingly different impression of the soda fountain. It wasn’t always the family-friendly drink we see today. In some cases, the local fizz counter was as bad, if not worse, than the neighbourhood ginmill.

To understand how the soda fountain raised the ire of the Temperance League and forced the government to draft drug interdiction laws, we need to look past the movie set constructs and explore the origins of the soda fountain.