Appreciating all that makes America special

Americana: Soda Fountains

Technically, a soda fountain is the machine that dispenses drinks at a lunch counter. But it became the common term for the local hangout that served sandwiches and ice cream treats. Uploaded by

Okay, those of you under 30 bear with me for a few moments. Long, long ago, before a Walgreens or CVS occupied every corner, communities embraced local drug stores. Besides dispensing prescriptions, they mostly sold over-the-counter remedies, along with a few extra items like writing supplies and batteries. But during their golden age, they also had a lunch counter that served sandwiches and ice cream treats. That section was called the soda fountain.

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Technically, a “soda fountain” is just the machine that dispensed drinks. But that became the generic name for the whole lunch counter. One of the main drinks that you don’t find much anymore was an ice cream soda, served with a mixture of chocolate syrup and carbonated water. And the guy behind the counter (seems like it was almost always a guy) was known as a soda jerk. Chances are tunes played on a juke box played in the corner, or maybe from a mini player on the counter.

I remember the counter at my drug store in the Stuart Gardens section of Newport News, Va. They’d make the absolute best chocolate milk shakes in one of those metal decanters; they’d fill your glass and leave the rest for you, too. No one’s quite sure what killed the soda fountain. Maybe it was the mega pharmacy, or maybe the deterioration of neighborhoods. Like drive-in theaters, a few of them still exist…and should be treasured as an irreplaceable part of American culture.


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