The History of the Soda Fountain

The Inventors, Impact, and Eventual Collapse

Soda fountain at counter

Jim Heimann Collection/Getty Images

From the early 20th century up until the 1960s, it was common for small-town residents and big-city dwellers to enjoy carbonated beverages at local soda fountains and ice cream saloons. Often housed together with apothecaries, the ornate, baroque soda fountain counter served as a meeting place for people of all ages and became especially popular as a legal place to gather during Prohibition. By the 1920s, just about every apothecary had a soda fountain.

Soda Fountain Manufacturers

Some soda fountains back in the day were the "Transcendent," which had miniature Greek statues on top of them and four spigots and a cupola topped with stars. Then there was the "Puffer Commonwealth," which had more spigots and was more statuesque. The four most successful manufacturers of soda fountains—Tuft’s Arctic Soda Fountain, A.D. Puffer and Sons of Boston, John Matthews and Charles Lippincott—created a monopoly of the soda fountain manufacturing business by combining to form the American Soda Fountain Company in 1891.

A Little History

The term "soda water" was first coined in 1798, and in 1810 the first U.S. patent was issued for the mass manufacture of imitation mineral waters to inventors Simmons and Rundell of Charleston, South Carolina.

The soda fountain patent was first granted to U.S. physician Samuel Fahnestock (1764–1836) in 1819. He had invented a barrel-shaped with a pump and spigot to dispense carbonated water, and the device was meant to be kept under a counter or hidden.

In 1832 New Yorker John Matthews invented a design that would make artificially carbonating water more cost-effective. His machine—a metal-lined chamber where sulfuric acid and calcium carbonate were mixed to make carbon dioxide—artificially carbonated waters at a quantity that could be sold to drugstores or street vendors.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, Gustavus D. Dows invented and operated the first marble soda fountain and ice shaver, which he patented in 1863. It was housed in a miniature cottage and was functional, and made of eye-pleasing white Italian marble, onyx and glistening brass with large mirrors. The New York Times wrote that Mr. Dows was the first to create a fountain that "looked like a Doric temple."

Boston-based manufacturer James Walker Tufts (1835–1902) patented a soda fountain in 1883 that he called the Arctic Soda Apparatus. Tufts went on to become a huge soda fountain maker, selling more soda fountains than all of his competitors combined.

In 1903 a revolution in soda fountain design took place with the front-service fountain patented by New Yorker Edwin Haeusser Heisinger, who operated a soda fountain in Union Station.

Soda Fountains Today

The popularity of soda fountains collapsed in the 1970s with the introduction of fast foods, commercial ice cream, bottled soft drinks, and restaurants. Today, the soda fountain is nothing other than a small, self-serve soft drink dispenser. Old-fashioned soda fountain parlors within apothecaries—where druggists would serve syrup and chilled, carbonated soda water—are most likely found in museums nowadays.

Sources and Further Information

  • Cooper Funderburg, Anne. "Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains." Bowling Green OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2004. 
  • Dickson, Paul. "The Great American Ice Cream Book." New York: Atheneum, 1972
  • Ferretti, Fred. "A Rememberance of Soda Fountains Past." The New York Times, April 27, 1983. 
  • Hanes, Alice. "Quenching the Thirst for Knowledge About Soda Water." Hagley Museum and Library, March 23, 2014. 
  • Tufts, James W. "Soda Fountains." One Hundred Years of American Commerce. Ed. Depew, Chauncey Mitchell. New York: D. O. Haynes, 1895. 470–74.
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Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Soda Fountain." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The History of the Soda Fountain. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of the Soda Fountain." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).