The Dangers of Soda Fountains

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.

An average American drugstore in 1900. A soda fountain is on the right side of the photo.]

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.

A pair of 1894 trade cards depicting “a big spender and his girl” at the soda fountain.

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.

In 1888 this cough syrup proudly listed its addictive ingredients—cannabis, morphine, alcohol, and chloroform—on its label. Since no laws required such disclosures, few manufacturers revealed their product contents.

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.”

In an 1880 drugstore in Washington DC, this soda fountain sold a beverage called Wine Coca for five cents a glass.

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.)

An 1890s trade card for Coca-Cola, touting it as the “ideal brain food” for relieving mental and physical exhaustion.

That’s one example of the “hidden dangers” Isabella wrote about.

A 1905 magazine ad for Coca-Cola.

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.

The design for a new soda dispensing unit, showing front and side views, with marble counters and inlays (circa 1900).

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.

An 1890 newspaper ad for Coca-Cola aimed at temperance advocates, despite the drink’s ingredients.

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.

The soda fountain in a Peoples Drug Store, Washington D.C., 1909.

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.

A 1916 advertising broadside showing boys drinking a case of beer or liquor.

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.

A 1905 ad in Harpers’ magazine.

Advertising for Coca-Cola and similar beverages was everywhere. Ads showed happy, peppy, beautiful people sipping cocaine-laced drinks.

Coca-Cola calendar art, 1915.

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.

An iconic 1890s Coca-Cola advertisement.

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.

A crowded Coca-Cola soda fountain in 1910.

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:

The Museum of Quackery.

Pilgrim Hall Museum.

And you can click here to learn more about Isabella’s novel, One Commonplace Day.

Good-bye, Prohibition!

On this day in 1933 Prohibition ended in the United States. It had begun thirteen years earlier with passage of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution; that Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicating liquors.

Sheet music for a popular temperance song in 1900.
Sheet music for a popular temperance song in 1900.

Isabella Alden was a staunch supporter of Prohibition, and her best friend, Theodosia Foster, dedicated her writings to the temperance movement by ensuring there was a strong anti-alcohol message in every story and novel she published.

An 1888 illustration of the principles of the prohibition party, showing Americans abandoning saloons, prisons, wineries, and insane asylums for a moral life centered around Sunday school and church.
An 1888 illustration of the principles of the prohibition party, showing Americans abandoning saloons, prisons, wineries, and insane asylums for a moral life centered around Sunday school and church.

Like Isabella and Theodosia, supporters of Prohibition believed that Prohibition was a “Noble Experiment” that would improve the nation’s moral and physical health, and curb the growing incidents of violence against women and children.


In many ways, the 18th Amendment achieved those goals, but there were some unintended consequences, too.

It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime.

Two men and a still.
Two men and a still.

The number of deaths from poisoning skyrocketed, as Americans resorted to improperly brewing their own alcohol or resorted to drinking industrial alcohol, with deadly consequences.

Perhaps most significant were the financial consequences. In cities like Milwaukee, Seattle, and St. Louis, thousands of people found themselves out of work when the breweries shut down. And many states, as well as the Federal government, became cash strapped when they could no longer collect liquor taxes. New York was especially hit hard; almost 75% of that state’s revenue was derived from liquor sales.


In the end, the “Noble Experiment” failed. The few benefits achieved by prohibition weren’t enough to offset the proliferation of organized crime and the hard financial consequences for average Americans. The 18th Amendment was repealed by passage of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.

There’s a great website you can visit to learn more about life in America during Prohibition. Click here.


The Molasses Cure

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, there were very few trusted commercial medicines to alleviate cold symptoms. People often relied on folk remedies and home-made treatments to cure a variety of illnesses and injuries.

A scene in Jessie Wells illustrates the point. Jessie and her best friend, Mate are sitting outside on the porch one evening when Jessie’s father comes home from work.

Dr. Wells came up the walk at this moment, and the two girls arose to give him passage.

“You are two very sensible young ladies, staying out in all this dew, with your thin dresses,” he said, as he passed them. “Tomorrow you’ll be taking molasses and ginger by the quart.”

“No, indeed, Doctor,” laughed Mate,” I never take any horrid doses like that.”

Horrid doses indeed! The molasses and ginger cure for a sore throat was fairly common, and it sounds like Dr. Wells believed in its curative powers. In actual fact, the ginger tended to suppress coughing and the molasses soothed the throat.

Molasses Cure v3

Another home remedy for colds was a mixture of molasses and a few drops of kerosene in a glass of water. As questionable this home cure may sound, it was one of the few cold remedies that didn’t contain alcohol.

Medicine 2

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (the 1861 authority on running the home) suggested an “infallible” cure for a cold, which included rum in its ingredients:

Put a large teacupful of linseed, with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins and 2 oz. of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart. Add to it 1/4 lb of pounded sugar-candy, a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar or lemon-juice.

.Commercial medicines also included alcohol. Bitgood’s Original Compound Vegetable Syrup boasted it could cure the common cold, as well as a host of other ailments. The manufacturer was one of the few who revealed that their product contained alcohol, although the ad doesn’t state how much alcohol was actually in the mixture.

The majority of commercial medicines did not disclose the alcohol content in their products.

This lovely trade card advertises a ginger cure that sounds just like the kind mothers everywhere mixed up with molasses in their kitchens. The product description on the back of the card touts the benefits of the medicine, but doesn’t list the actual ingredients.

Molasses cure 4b front

Too bad; because, in actual fact, Parker’s Ginger Tonic was 41.6% alcohol—more potent than 80 proof whiskey! Compare that to the average alcoholic content of today’s beer (5% alcohol) and wine (approximately 12% alcohol).

It was the rule, rather than the exception, that consumers had no idea that they were dosing family members with alcoholic products; and since many alcohol-laden medicines of the time were specifically marketed to children, mothers often unwittingly gave their little ones rum and whiskey.

Little wonder, then, that Isabella Alden often wrote about the dangers of alcohol consumption. At the time her books were written, people usually didn’t know they were consuming alcohol and often didn’t recognize their growing dependence until it was potentially too late.