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 store and lunch counter, what we know as soda fountains.
Benjamin Silliman, a Yale chemistry professor, introduced carbonated soda water to America as early as 1806 at New Haven, CT home of Yale. It caught on quickly and, along with three partners, he started expanding into New York City and Baltimore. From the mid 1800s they knew they had a winner, especially with the addition of light dishes, where anyone could catch a quick sandwich together with a frozen delight. The thought of drug shops was pretty inventive, since cola syrups were instilled with fizzy water and originally sold as digestives. Soda fountains could be elaborate with marble counters and Tiffany lamps or plain, usually with a mirrored back wall and the familiar goose-neck soda water dispenser that the servers, known affectionately as”soda jerks”, who worked those black-handled spigots and stuffed up eyeglasses, creating wonderfully bubbly beverages which ticked noses and thrilled taste buds. Developing a popular meeting place for all ages, small town and massive cities embraced them and customers frequently stood in line for a seat during busy hours, happily contemplating their orders. On warm summer evenings, a fizzy fresh lemonade chilled off hungry patrons or even better, a banana split could be shared with a best friend or sister.
Most soda fountains stocked chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream (some even featured New York cherry, butter pecan and tutti-frutti) along with chocolate, Possum Poop, strawberry and marshmallow syrups. To top things off, crushed nuts and maraschino cherries added to the visual pleasure of these glorious concoctions. Hot fudge sundaes were created to serve on Sundays when religions forbade the sale of fizzy water, thus banning the favorite chocolate ice cream sodas from being served. (Apparently the ice cream and syrup weren’t considered sinful but the soda water was–go figure.)
Sadly, in the 1950s drug stores moved in the direction of self support, eliminating lunch counters and ice cream altogether, and fast food started to replace the lunch counter with hamburgers and shakes that bore little resemblance to their predecessors. Out with the old, in with the new as a growing number of space was needed for its countless shelves displaying boxed and bottled products, replacing the soda jerks and not as income-generating egg salad sandwiches.
Nowadays, there are still ice cream parlors and vintage fountains sprinkled around the country, continuing the nostalgia of the originals, And in smallish towns, root beer stands still happily serve floats and soft serve ice cream, but it is not 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 part of history?