Today, a soda fountain—when you can find one—is a quaint relic of a by-gone era. Think of soda fountains and you may think of ladies wearing corsets and long skirts, or gentlemen who never leave home without a hat, tie, and pocket watch.
Soda fountains are such benign objects to us, it’s hard to imagine that they ever had the potential to cause harm. But in Isabella’s day, there were hidden dangers in every soda fountain, in every town in America.
Isabella Alden recognized those hidden dangers and wrote about them, because she knew the dangers were not inconsequential. There were pitifully few laws at the time that regulated the sale or distribution of products that could be bought at the time; and many products included alcohol and addictive ingredients.
Children could obtain alcoholic drinks in saloons. Doctors prescribed alcohol to patients young and old.
And commonly used tonics and medications often contained alcohol and opiates—sometimes at alarmingly high levels—and most did not disclose their contents on their labels.
Here’s an example: In 1885 a man named John Pemberton began marketing a beverage he invented. He called it “French Wine Cola—Ideal Nerve and Tonic Stimulant.”
Why such a name? Because every 7 ounce glass contained 9 milligrams of cocaine and a walloping dose of caffeine extracted from the kola bean. Initially, sales were sluggish.
But the following year, when Pemberton renamed the drink “Coca-Cola,” sales picked up. By the 1890s, Coca-Cola was being sold in stores and soda fountains all over the country . . . and it still contained cocaine and caffeine. (Coca-Cola’s formula didn’t change until after 1903.)
That’s one example of the “hidden dangers” Isabella wrote about.
In her novel One Commonplace Day, several scenes take place in the town drug store, which Isabella describes this way:
[It was ] glittering with its show of colored glass and brilliant liquids, and arranged with that regard to lovely combinations of color which is common in first-class drug stores. There is at one end a handsome soda fountain, with all the various cooling syrups and elegant appliances of first-class establishments.
Charlie Lambert, one of the characters in the story, was a temperance man who took pride in the fact that he drank no liquor and had no temptation to drink any. But he often took his lunch at the soda fountain, where he drank a soda almost every day during the summer.
Chances are, Charlie’s soda was laced with wine, cocaine, caffeine, or one of any number of additives that were not disclosed to unsuspecting consumers.
In the book Isabella advances the theory that people often become addicted to alcohol or drugs because they develop a taste for them as children.
When you think of the number of children who sat on soda fountain stools, unconsciously swinging their dangling feet as they enjoyed a glass of Coca-Cola—all the while pumping nine milligrams of cocaine through their veins—Isabella’s theory begins to make sense.
Advertising for Coca-Cola and similar beverages was everywhere. Ads showed happy, peppy, beautiful people sipping cocaine-laced drinks.
And some soda fountains and saloons distributed tickets to people on the sidewalks, with a buy-one-drink, get-one-free offer.
By today’s standards, Isabella’s novels about temperance and the evils of alcohol may come across as strident and unreasonable. In reality, Isabella was fighting a very real problem in the best way she knew how; by writing stories people could relate to.
And while One Commonplace Day is, on the surface, a story about the American temperance movement in the late 1880s, it carries a deeper message.
In the book, a group of prayerful Christians band together to help one of their neighbors overcome his addiction to alcohol. They formulate a plan to intercede in his life and help put him on the path to sobriety.
They pray for him, invite him to church, intercept him before he can enter a saloon or drug store, and do everything they can to help him kick his addiction.
Much has changed since Isabella wrote One Commonplace Day in 1886, but Americans still struggle with issues of alcoholism and addiction.
What do you think? In today’s world, is it possible for a group of prayerful Christians—like the people Isabella wrote about in One Commonplace Day—to band together to change the life of one person who struggles with addiction?
Coca-Cola wasn’t the only tonic that promised health benefits from questionable ingredients. You can read more about quack cures and patent medicines on these sites:
And you can click here to learn more about Isabella’s novel, One Commonplace Day.
2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Soda Fountains”
I grew up in the 1930’s. My mother was very strict about not letting us have soda pop. She made a batch of root beer every summer and bottled it herself. As a special treat we were allowed a small glass. Down at the corner of our street was a drug store. A cousin and her husband stayed with us for a year, and they liked to go down there and get a “chocolate coke” or a “cherry coke.” Once in a while they took me with them. I was 11, and my brother was 5 years-old. One evening, my brother was left at home with the cousins. When we returned from visiting friends, my cousin told my mother that she thought my brother was sick. They had taken him to the drug store, but he suddenly got up from the table, went home, and they found him in bed. My mother went to see how he was. He whispered to her, “My cousins took me to the drug store and bought me something strong to drink. It wasn’t beer nor nothin’, but I think it was whisky.” I think by the 30’s the cocaine had been taken out of coca cola, but there was still lots of caffeine.
What an interesting story, Patricia! Your mother sounds like a careful, protective woman, who, like Isabella, knew there were hidden dangers in a simple glass of soda. Thank you for sharing your story; you’ve illustrated the point of the blog post so well! —Jenny