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The Great American Soda Fountain

Monday April 18th, 7pm

Carbonated water was thought to be excellent for the health in mid-19th century Europe and America, possibly because of its association with the naturally carbonated waters of some famous spas. Druggists began installing "fountains," which were "J"-shaped faucets connected to pressurized water tanks behind the walls, and people bought the water to improve digestion and for various ailments.

But in the late 19th century sodas took a characteristically American turn. Pharmacists began to embellish them with flavors. Because they concocted many of their own drugs, they had ready equipment and materials in their shops to add these from scratch. The flavored sodas became so popular that syrup companies sprang up, which allowed flavored sodas to be sold at 5 & 10 cent lunch counters and thousands of other locations without the need for a chemistry lab in the back. Plain sodas were relegated to the role of highball mixers, while the country went mad for "pop." Ice cream was introduced to these "soda fountains," and Americans pulled out the syrup again, inventing the sundae.

Soda fountains became a mainstay of American culture, but began a sharp decline after WWII and become nearly extinct by 1980. But Americans never gave up their love of syrup and dairy, which finds its current expression at ... Starbucks. In other words, milky, syrupy espresso-based drinks aren't an aberration. They are a direct descendant of a great American tradition.

Our speaker Charles Perry is a noted food historian and writer, and co-founder of the Culinary Historians of Southern California.

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