While the phrase “soda fountain” may conjure up a midcentury malt shop tableau—part Archie comic, part Happy Days—the roots of the American soda fountain run much deeper, and much darker. Carbonated water has been prized for its curative power for millennia, but commercial fountains, which claimed to artificially reproduce the benefits of spring waters, didn’t become widespread until the first quarter of the 19th century—and then were marketed primarily for their medicinal, not pleasure-giving, properties. In fact, it was because of soda water’s perceived therapeutic benefits that fountains ended up in drugstores.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the popularity of the soda fountain during its turn-of-the-century heyday: By the end of the 1800s, most U.S. towns contained at least one soda fountain (New York City alone is estimated to have had more than 670), and by 1920 their ranks had swelled to 125,000.
Can an industry so defined by the past have an innovative future? If Darcy O’Neil, the bartender and blogger behind the website Art of Drink, has a say, phosphates, lactarts, and other fountain drinks may soon enjoy a revival.
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