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How Soda Fountains Work

Soda Fountain Culture
At this small-town soda fountain in the 1890s, a pharmacist whips up a fizzy concoction for a customer.
At this small-town soda fountain in the 1890s, a pharmacist whips up a fizzy concoction for a customer.
© Corbis

Imagine what life would have been like in New York City, Philadelphia or Atlanta, back in the summer of 1892. Cities were stiflingly hot, and there was no such thing as air conditioning or refrigeration. Men wore suits and women walked around in long dresses with layers of constricting undergarments. It must have been unbearable.

Then imagine stepping from the sun-baked street into a dark, cool establishment. Behind an ornate marble bar stand mustachioed men in white pharmacist coats and starched collars mixing up the most enticing and refreshing beverages. You order a Coca-Cola, the latest and greatest miracle drink, promising instant energy and relief from upset stomach and headaches.

Now imagine that first sip — so wonderfully cold, buzzing with bubbles, nearly electric with sweet and exotic flavors. Your thirst sated and your spirits revived, you're almost ready to brave the summer heat. After one more soda.

The first American soda fountain was likely built in New York City in 1809 by a Yale chemistry professor by the wonderful name of Benjamin Silliman [source: Oatman-Stanford]. Like many early soda fountains, Silliman's sold customers on the purported health benefits of carbonated water. Flavors like ginger and lemon were subdued and marketed as natural remedies.

Then the pharmacists took over. By the mid-19th century, the pharmacy counter was the hot spot for the latest and most creative soda flavors. Before the advent of a highly regulated, commercialized drug industry, each pharmacist was free to mix up his own fizzy-sweet cocktails spiked with such spirit-lifting wonder drugs as caffeine, kola nuts and even cocaine! Yup, in the late 1800s, cocaine was a common ingredient in so-called "bracers" or "nervines" intended to deliver extra pep [source: Oatman-Stanford].

But not everyone crowding into 1890s soda fountains was a speed fiend. Hugely popular refreshments included the original milkshake (carbonated water, sweetened flavored milk and a raw egg!) and the ice cream soda, flavored soda water with a scoop of vanilla ice cream [source: Cooper Funderberg].

The 19th-century temperance movement also fueled the popularity of the soda fountain as a wholesome and healthy alternative to the saloon. By the turn of the 20th century, every major city in America had thousands of corner drug stores serving up refreshing drinks at the glorious soda fountain [source: Cooper Funderberg].

The decline of soda fountains, starting in the 1930s, has been blamed on many things: the rise of car culture and drive-through restaurants; the ubiquity of home refrigeration; even the end of Prohibition. By the 1970s you could barely find a soda fountain. But a few old-time diners have survived the decades, and some new soda fountains have popped up in the 21st century, deliberately reproducing the feel of bygone eras [source: Moskin].