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Teens hanging around at a soda fountain in the 1950s. Photo by everett255/Depositphotos.com.

Who Remembers….The Soda Fountain and Ice Cream Parlor?


Here is another installment in our Who Remembers? series. You can browse previous articles by using the search bar on the right or by clicking here. These articles are strolls down memory lane. In some cases, the buildings, but new businesses have replaced them. In other instances, the buildings or even the properties have been razed. Instead of a building, it may be a TV show, personality, or commercial that no one longer exists. Either way, it can’t stop us from taking the Memory Lane stroll!

As always we would rather this be a discussion. No one knows this area better than those who grew up here! Please, leave constructive criticism, feedback, and corrections. We’d love to hear your anecdotes. Please share!


It’s fun to reminisce of things that have passed. Remember having to walk to a payphone when your car broke down? Pressing a number multiple times to get the right letter for a text? Having to listen to white noise, static, bells and beeps while waiting for your computer to log onto the internet?

One of these fun things to recall is the soda fountain. Some young-uns or whippersnappers will think that you are pulling their leg when if you try to tell them that once upon a time – or as they would refer to as the olden days or the Jurassic Period – we would go to a Woolworth’s Five & Dime or local diner to hang out at the soda fountain. You didn’t need your arm twisted to be convinced to tag along with mom while she did some shopping.

Yes, you could be left alone at the soda fountain at a young age. There you could choose a flavor of soda and it would come out of a hose into your glass. And these kids think Cherry Cola is a modern invention! This was served by a soda jerk, which was his title, not something you’d call him if your customer service was horrible. See some of the popular lingo or slang from the jerks here.

Of course, you could also make it afloat by having a scoop of ice cream added to it. When mom was going to Woolworth’s Five & Dime it was a no-brainer that you would tag along.

The soda fountain can’t be found anywhere today, but it had been around for a long time. In fact, the first patent was granted in 1819 and the first operational soda fountain was built in 1858. The first ice cream “float” was served in 1874, carbonation was an option once it was invented in 1888 and the front service soda fountain we are familiar with wouldn’t be designed until 1903 – by a doctor to boot!

While today soda conjured up a sweet concoction, the younger folks of today would be horrified to find out that soda was actually first used to make medicines easier to imbibe. Most medicines were a cocktail of some pretty disgusting things and many chemists or apothecarists – what pharmacists were called “back in the day” – would assemble a variety of roots, herbs, spices caffeine, even cocaine, and opiates, for many ailments such as “nerves, “dyspepsia,” headaches, cramps, fatigue, and virtually anything else. Yes, you could get drugs “over the counter” and it wasn’t illegal until the “Harrison Act” in 1914.

Once prohibition came around in 1919 the soda fountain filled a void in American society since bars were shut-down – excepting Speakeasies, of course. It was at this point in history that the soda fountain became synonymous with the ice cream parlors or saloons that we know today and was no longer a stand-alone business.

It was with the advent of prohibition that the term “soft drink” would come about and the drinks would get sweeter and start losing their association with pharmacists and medicine. Owners would advertise their compliance with the government as well as to let the general populace know that there was still something enjoyable to be had. Find some great soda recipes here.

By offering a number of items to the menu, the ice cream parlor became a place to have some ice cream, sandwich, classic PBJ, or egg phosphate (remember those?!) or even more disgusting sardine and potato salad on rye bread. Kids these days will never know of these last two “pleasures” or having to take a spoonful of castor oil or sucking on a bar of soap. Kind of hard to tell the difference between punishment and a meal back then.

Thus began the golden age of the ice cream parlor and it became a slice of good ‘ol Americana for decades. So, what happened? Well, Walgreens happened. Or should we say, the march of progress and a capitalism? Walgreen’s was perhaps the largest chain of American drug stores by 1950 and they added the concept we have today of a full-service drug store taking away a substantial amount of the soda fountain’s chunk of business.

Toss in the American love affair with automobiles that was in full swing by 1950 and people could get their soda, ice cream, sandwiches, burgers, and everything else that you could get at a soda fountain or ice cream parlor, and the industry was hurt even more. The final blow was the mass production of aluminum cans and glass bottles, so you can get your favorite soda to go.

From medicinal purposes to a replacement for bars, to a place for people of all ages – soda and the soda fountain altered with the times as much as it could, but it wasn’t enough. Within less than a century the ice cream parlor or soda fountain went from being on every street corner on the Main Streets of America to have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Now, they just live on within vintage photos….and our memories.

About Joe Silvia

When Joe isn't writing, he's coaching people to punch each other in the face. He enjoys ancient cultures, dead and living languages, cooking, benching 999#s, and saving the elderly, babies and puppies from burning buildings. While he enjoys long walks on the beach, he will not be your alarm clock, because he's no ding-a-ling.

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