Soda Jerks: Heroes Of The Past
Originally, what was called a soda fountain was a device that dispensed carbonated soft drinks and fizzy water, but as time went on, it was used as a general term for an ice cream shop and lunch counter, what we know as soda fountains. These began to appear in drug stores and dime stores in the mid 1800s.
Benjamin Silliman, a Yale chemistry professor, introduced carbonated soda water to America as early as 1806 in New Haven, CT home of Yale. It caught on quickly and, along with three partners, he began expanding into New York City and Baltimore. By the mid 1800s they knew they had a winner, especially with the addition of light meals, where anyone could grab a quick sandwich along with a frozen delight. The idea of drug stores was pretty ingenious, since cola syrups were instilled with fizzy water and originally sold as digestives. Soda fountains could be ornate with marble counters and Tiffany lamps or plain, usually with a mirrored back wall and the familiar goose-neck soda water dispenser which the servers, known affectionately as “soda jerks”, who worked those black-handled spigots and filled up glasses, creating wonderfully bubbly drinks which ticked noses and delighted taste buds. Creating a popular meeting place for all ages, small town and large cities embraced them and customers often stood in line for a seat during busy hours, happily contemplating their orders. On warm summer evenings, a fizzy fresh lemonade cooled off thirsty patrons or better yet, a banana split could be shared with a best friend or sister.
Most soda fountains stocked chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream (some even featured New York cherry, butter pecan and tutti-frutti) along with chocolate, strawberry and marshmallow syrups. To top things off, crushed nuts and maraschino cherries added to the visual delight of those glorious concoctions. Hot fudge sundaes were created to serve on Sundays when religions forbade the sale of fizzy water, thus prohibiting the popular chocolate ice cream sodas from being served. (Apparently the ice cream and syrup were not considered sinful but the soda water was–go figure.)
Sadly, in the 1950s drug stores moved in the direction of self service, eliminating lunch counters and ice cream altogether, and fast food began to replace the lunch counter with hamburgers and shakes which bore little resemblance to their predecessors. Out with the old, in with the new as more and more space was needed for the hundreds of shelves displaying boxed and bottled products, replacing the soda jerks and less income-generating egg salad sandwiches.
Today, there are still ice cream parlors and vintage fountains sprinkled around the country, continuing the nostalgia of the originals, And in small towns, root beer stands still happily serve floats and soft serve ice cream, but it isn’t quite the same. Oh sure, you can go to Dairy Queen or Baskin-Robbins and get a sundae or even a banana split, but something is missing. Is it those hats, or is it just a piece of history?