- Historic Sites
The Soda Fountain
Of bubbling waters, sacred marble, and old John Matthews, father of an industry and a flamboyant art form
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
As the ever-observant Gibbon noted long ago, mankind is much more liberal with applause for its destroyers than for its benefactors. What other explanation can there be for the fact that nowhere, despite thousands of parks and squares bristling with military statuary, has his adopted country erected a statue to John Matthews? A benefactor of the first rank, Matthews gave us the soda fountain and popularized carbonated drinks, yet his only personal memorial is his grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn. It is, to be sure, no mean monument, for above a recumbent marble likeness of Matthews rises a granite Gothic canopy and spire to a height of thirtysix feet, richly carved all over with gargoyles, evangelists, expiring Matthews relatives, flora, fauna, and elaborate bas-reliefs representing great moments in the life of the deceased. Designed and partially executed in his own workshop, this imposing potpourri looks very much like one of Matthews’ own “cottage” soda fountains at the height of that eclectic art form. But the benefactor’s true monument is to be found in nearly every drugstore, luncheonette, and department store in America; his handiwork lives on every Main Street.
Natural carbonated waters have, of course, been bubbling up out of springs and spas since the dawn of history. Paracelsus, Lavoisier, and Dr. Joseph Priestley observed and experimented with them. A Swedish chemist named Bergman produced artificial carbonated or mineral water in 1778, and Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale began manufacturing and bottling small quantities in New Haven in 1806. An early fountain was dispensing various homemade Vichy, Kissingen, and Apollinaris “seltzers” in New York by 1810; they were supposed to cure obesity. But it was the arrival of John Matthews in New York about 1832 that made soda-water drinking an industry and, incidentally, offered the grogshop and the saloon the first real competition they had ever encountered.
As students of the Matthews mausoleum can learn by twisting their necks to observe the canopy’s carved ceiling, the benefactor-to-be began as an apprentice in the London shop of Joseph Bramah, inventor, among other things, of the permutation bank lock, a hydraulic press, and a new kind of seamless lead tubing. There, in eternal stone, is young John, learning how to construct machinery to make carbonic acid gas. In an adjoining panel, he appears again, aged twenty-one, taking ship to seek his fortune in New York, doubtless convinced that there was no future for a seltzer man in a nation of confirmed tea-drinkers.
Matthews hung out his shingle at 55 Gold Street and was soon manufacturing carbonating machinery and selling charged water to retail stores. The equipment was simple enough—a cast-iron box, lined with lead, where carbonic acid gas was formed by the action of sulphuric acid (then often called oil of vitriol) on marble dust. The gas was then purified by passing it through water, and conducted into a tank partially filled with cool water. An employee rocked the tank for a quarter to a half hour, until the water was impregnated and bubbly. To imitate popular mineral waters, one added their salts to the mixture.
The introduction of marble chips was an American development, for Bramah had used whiting and chalk. But marble was easier and cheaper to come by in New York: the enterprising Matthews firm at one point acquired all the scrap from the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Although a few of the devout thought this use unseemly, these chips alone supplied some twenty-five million gallons before the supply gave out. Pressure, of course, is always a hazard in gas manufacture, and there were a number of noisy explosions among Matthews’ competitors in the early days, but his firm had a special, if rather unusual, method of keeping the pressure from rising above the optimum level of 150 pounds.
The safety valve was an ex-slave named Ben Austen, one of the earliest employees, a man of intelligence and, above all, strength. When the force of a new batch of soda water needed measuring, the job fell to Ben, who simply placed his powerful thumb over the pressure cock. When it blew his thumb away, the Matthews people estimated they had reached 150 pounds and that the water was fully charged. “Ben’s Thumb” was long a term in the jargon of the trade. During the Civil War draft riots, when angry Irish mobs roamed the New York streets seeking to hang any Negro they could find, Matthews was obliged to ship Ben out to safety in a packing case, as though he were a tank of the product.
As time went on, several strong competitors entered the field—John Lippincott of Philadelphia, A. D. Puffer of Boston, and James W. Tufts of Somerville, Massachusetts (he did so well eventually that he founded Pinehurst, North Carolina)—but the next great breakthrough, and the one which brought them all prosperity, was made in 1838 or 1839 by Eugene Roussel, a Frenchman who was selling plain soda water at his perfume shop in Philadelphia. With the ingenuity that characterizes all Frenchmen when dealing with the opposite sex, he decided to add flavors to his customers’ drinks. As simple as that, but no one had thought of it. Soon the crude soda fountains of Matthews and his competitors were all keeping syrups on hand, in orange, cherry, lemon, teaberry, ginger, peach, and many other flavors. Root beer and birch beer and sarsaparilla appeared, bottled or made at the fountain. Attempts were made to imitate, without alcohol, the flavors of various wines and champagnes, but apparently less successfully.