Have you ever come across an old newspaper ad and wondered about the products listed? Take a look at this 1896 ad for the “finest” ice cream parlor and soda fountain in Blair, Nebraska.Soda fountain ad, 1896 Nebraska Thu, Aug 27, 1896 – 5 · The Pilot (Blair, Nebraska) · Newspapers.com
While some of the offerings are familiar, the ad had us asking questions like: What’s a “phosphate”? Were milkshakes the same back then as they are now? How popular were ice cream sodas? And what exactly was a soda fountain in the first place?
To answer our questions, we headed to the historical papers on Newspapers.com to learn about 19th-century soda fountains and some of the vintage drinks they served. If you’re interested in making some of the drinks yourself, stay tuned till the end for some recipes!
A Quick History of Soda Fountains
First off, 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, and by the early 1800s soda water had become a trend in the United States, with sellers adding fruits and syrups for flavor. But the late 19th century 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, and more. The employees who worked behind the counters were known as “soda fountain clerks” or “soda water jerkers” (and later “soda jerks”).
From their 18th-century origins, soda fountains remained popular in the United States through the 1950s, when drive-ins and car culture led to their decline.
Now that we have a better idea of what a soda fountain was, let’s go back to that 1896 ad and learn about some of the drinks!
What on Earth Was a “Phosphate”?
“Phosphates,” also known as “phosphate sodas,” were made by mixing acid phosphate (phosphoric acid and mineral salts) with soda water and flavoring. The acid phosphate gave the drink a tart or sour taste. This newspaper clipping from 1892 Missouri gives advice on the “proper” way to make a phosphate:How to make a phosphate, 1892 Sun, Aug 7, 1892 – 11 · The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri) · Newspapers.com
Phosphate sodas came in a wide variety of flavors, but lemon phosphates, cherry phosphates, and egg phosphates were a few of the most common. Fruit flavors make sense given the tartness of phosphates, but egg?
Egg phosphates and other egg-based drinks were actually quite popular at 19th-century soda fountains. Egg phosphates were made of raw egg, soda water, phosphate, and orange, lemon, or chocolate syrup. Other common egg drinks a person could order included eggnog, egg flip, egg lemonade, and more.
Milkshakes . . . Hold the Ice Cream
While the milkshake listed in the Nebraska soda fountain ad may seem self-explanatory, it’s likely not the drink you’re thinking of. A milkshake’s name was originally much more literal—a beverage made of milk shaken together with crushed or shaved ice, flavoring, and sometimes raw egg. This 1888 clipping explains it:The milk-shake, 1888 Sun, Aug 19, 1888 – Page 17 · St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · Newspapers.com
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.
Ice Cream Sodas Take the Lead
While milkshakes had their moment of popularity, they were overshadowed by what was arguably the most popular offering at a 19th-century soda fountain: ice cream soda (now often called an ice cream float).Eating ice cream soda, 1906 Sun, Aug 12, 1906 – Page 24 · Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, Nebraska) · Newspapers.com
While a version of ice cream soda existed before the Civil War, that older version was made of flavored soda water mixed with cream and ice. The new ice cream soda—likely created in the 1870s—replaced the cream and ice with ice cream. The drink quickly gained popularity and spread around the country, and by the 1890s no soda fountain’s menu was complete without it.
Other Soda Fountain Drinks
The soda fountain’s beverage options didn’t stop with phosphates, milkshakes, and 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 and Coca-Cola mentioned in our 1896 Nebraska ad) were commercially manufactured name-brand drinks. But many soda fountain offerings were invented and made in-house. This 1892 clipping gives an idea of a few of them:Some of the drinks sold at a Kansas City soda fountain, 1892 Sun, Aug 7, 1892 – 11 · The Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri) · Newspapers.com
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, coffee, and hot chocolate.
If you’re interested in vintage soda fountain drinks, these newspaper clippings give some insight into how they were made!