- 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
For a very modest investment, Matthews could put any chemist or other entrepreneur in business. Here is one offering:
Only six tumblers were provided, but they could be washed in a jiffy. They were simply rinsed in cold water, for germs concerned nobody, and their existence was not suspected. Ice cooling had been introduced and business was booming, so that Art, which had been waiting in the wings, could now step forward and embrace Commerce. The Leonardo of the soda fountain was one G. D. Dows, of Lowell, Massachusetts, who decided to try his hand at improving the looks of the crude soda fountain in his brother’s store, and wound up with a combination fountain and ice shaver housed in a white Italian marble box. It became so popular that Dows opened his own place in Boston.
The “cottage” fountain, as this kind of design was later called, now took over the field. Basically boxes resting on a counter, they ran riot through the art of decoration—Gothic, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, Japanese, Brooklyn Hittite, anything in any combination— and bore names like The Frost King, The Icefloe, The Egyptian, The Avalanche, and The Cathedral. Fanciful spigots led out of tombs and temples and chalets decorated with sphinxes, lions, nymphs, knights; allegory ran wild. Names of flavors and famous mineral waters would appear on the larger models. There is a tale of an old lady who walked around a giant fountain displayed at a feie in the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, reading off to herself the distinguished names graven next to each spigot: Saratoga, Deep Rock, Kissingen, Washington. Then she turned to the attendant. “I didn’t know,” she said, “that the gallant Seventh had fought in all these battles.”
In 1870, John Matthews was gathered to his fathers and entombed in the elegant manner we have described. Meanwhile the “cottage” became too small a device, what with the hundreds of flavors now offered, and great wall-models now appeared, erected like altars behind the counter, gleaming in marble and onyx and with even more fanciful architecture. One boasted 300 flavors. Another cost $40,000, a fortune in those days.
Now another great benefactor appeared, who united the ice cream parlor and the soda fountain. Although he has rival claimants, the historians of the industry press the accolade for inventing the ice cream soda upon Robert M. Green, the soft-drink concessionaire at the Franklin Institute Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1874. Among the drinks he had been selling was one concocted of fresh sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water, but one busy day he ran out of cream. In desperation he bought some vanilla ice cream, intending to melt it, but the customers were so pressing that he used it in its congealed form. Apparently the drinkers uttered glad cries of joy, for Green thereafter made ice cream sodas on purpose , and the recipe spread over the country.
By the end of the century, the soda fountain was big business. The four original firms had combined, as was then stylish, into a trust. It was no longer necessary for soda-fountain proprietors to make their own gas, behind the counter or in the cellar, because it could now be purchased in portable steel cylinders. The wall temples began to disappear in favor of the modern counter, with the apparatus hidden inside it, and the great empty space where the old fountain had stood was covered with an ornate looking-glass and clever displays of tumblers—washed nowadays in hot water. Food too was now offered for sale, and in the twenties came mechanical refrigeration. It was a long way from Lavoisier, from the dissenting parson Priestley shaking up the first glass of artificial mineral water with gas acquired at a nearby brewery, from Ben’s thumb, and from that great silent soda fountain in Greenwood Cemetery. But a great thirst had at last been quenched.