What were soda fountains? The simplest answer is that a soda fountain was an apparatus that dispensed carbonated water (known as “soda water” in the United States). But the term eventually expanded to also mean the area inside a business (often a counter) where a person could order a fountain drink.
The soda fountain machine was invented in Europe in the late 1700s, & by the early 1800s soda water had become a trend in the United States, with sellers adding fruits & syrups for flavor. But the late 19C saw increased customer demand for fancier drinks beyond flavored soda water.
Soda fountains were frequently found at pharmacies but were also located inside department stores, bakeries, ice cream parlors, restaurants, & more. The employees who worked behind the counters were known as “soda fountain clerks” or “soda water jerkers” (and later “soda jerks”).
From their 18C origins, soda fountains remained popular in the United States through the 1950s, when drive-ins & car culture led to their decline.
“Phosphates,” also known as “phosphate sodas,” were made by mixing acid phosphate (phosphoric acid & mineral salts) with soda water & flavoring. The acid phosphate gave the drink a tart or sour taste.
Phosphate sodas came in a wide variety of flavors, but lemon phosphates, cherry phosphates, & egg phosphates were a few of the most common. Fruit flavors make sense given the tartness of phosphates, but egg?
Egg phosphates & other egg-based drinks were actually quite popular at 19C soda fountains. Egg phosphates were made of raw egg, soda water, phosphate, & orange, lemon, or chocolate syrup. Other common egg drinks a person could order included eggnog, egg flip, egg lemonade, & more.
A milkshake’s name was originally much more literal—a beverage made of milk shaken together with crushed or shaved ice, flavoring, & sometimes raw egg. Eventually, ice cream began making its way into the milkshake, creating the dessert we’re familiar with today. But as this ad from 1930 shows, some businesses still saw the need to specify that their milkshakes included ice cream well into the 20th century.
While milkshakes had their moment of popularity, they were overshadowed by what was arguably the most popular offering at a 19C soda fountain: ice cream soda (now often called an ice cream float).
While a version of ice cream soda existed before the Civil War, that older version was made of flavored soda water mixed with cream & ice. The new ice cream soda—likely created in the 1870s—replaced the cream & ice with ice cream. The drink quickly gained popularity & spread around the country, & by the 1890s no soda fountain’s menu was complete without it.
The soda fountain’s beverage options didn’t stop with phosphates, milkshakes, & ice cream sodas.
The plethora of soda fountains in any given city meant businesses competed for customers by offering an ever-growing menu of drinks—with upward of 50 (sometimes 100) options at the larger fountains. Some of the beverages (like the Moxie & Coca-Cola mentioned in a 1896 Nebraska ad) were commercially manufactured name-brand drinks. But many soda fountain offerings were invented & made in-house.
Since many beverages offered at soda fountains were served cold, it’s no surprise that soda fountains typically did their best business in the summer. But they attracted customers in colder months too with offerings like “hot soda water,” & beef tea, plus coffee, & hot chocolate, which were popular drinks in 18C America.