In the 19th and early 20th centuries, soda fountains were not only as ubiquitous as saloons, they were as dangerous. Soda jerks served sweet treats variously containing cocaine, lithium, morphine, opium, chloroform, and ether; no wonder bars found themselves competing with soda fountains for customers, who became even more powerfully addicted to soft drinks than to hard liquor.
The 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act put a stop to psychedelic soda pop, but fountains still managed to give saloons a run for their money: if phosphates could no longer get you higher than booze, they could at least taste better. Soda fountains were located in drug stores, and drug stores were manned by pharmacists. Unlike bartenders, writes Darcy O’Neill in his fascinating new book Fix The Pumps, “pharmacists had privileged access to many compounds and the knowledge to mix them.” They created complex, seductive flavors via “pharmaceutical extracts, chemicals and tinctures whose access was limited to the profession.”
Fix The Pumps reveals these Gilded Age trade secrets in all their arcane glory. The author is uniquely qualified for the task: not only is Darcy a dogged drink detective, he’s also a professional chemist. His training enabled him to translate measuring units like drachms and minums in such publications as the 1772 manual Impregnating Water With Fixed Air, the 1890 handbook Saxe’s Hints To Soda Water Dispensers, and the 1919 grimoire Uncle Sam’s Water Wagon; 500 recipes For Delicious Drinks.
When you read the 450 recipes in Fix The Pumps, a vanished era and a lost art both come vividly to life. First you learn how to make the obsure ingredients that went into the recipes: Irish Moss Foam, Solution Of Gum Arabic, Elixir Of Dandelion, Kola Extract, Checkerberry Syrup, Macaroon Essence, Rapid Transit Syrup, Chocolate Nectar, May Queen Fizzette, Don’t Care Syrup, Mountain Pink, and Spice Of Life, to name a few.
Then come the drink recipes incorporating these ingredients, sodas, punches, and egg drinks with names like Pineapple Paulette, Third Degree, Fakir Freezer, Scientific Egg Shake, and Piff Paff Puff. Many of these are as creative as any alcoholic drink of their era — or ours. Witness the Scorcher’s Delight (vanilla syrup, tincture of cardamom, acid phosphate, and carbonated water over shaved ice), the Nipponese (orange, ginger, pineapple, and grape syrups mixed with soda water and fresh mint leaves, served en frappé), and the Heap Of Comfort (hock syrup, malted milk, clam bouillon, a whole egg, soda and acid phosphate, topped with nutmeg).
The art of prepping, mixing, and serving such fare was in its own way as demanding as haute cocktail mixology, requiring a similar skill set, tool kit, and knowledge of customer psychology. During Prohibition, notes Darcy, many bartenders turned to soda jerking for just this reason.
So what happened to these grandiose, gourmet quaffs and the people who served them? Just as Prohibition set back the art of the cocktail, convenience killed the soda jerk. Customers forsook the baroque artistry of soda fountain fare for the instant gratification of synthetic soda in bottles and cans. “Cocktails are only now starting to recover after decades of abuse,” writes Darcy. “The soda has shown no signs of returning to its prior glory.”
If anything can turn the tide, it’s Fix The Pumps. Read it not just for those revelatory recipes, but for its provocative take on their cultural, economic, and medical impact on generations gone by. You’ll never think of soda fountains as wholesome Happy Days nostalgia again.