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.

Shopping with Isabella

When you read Isabella’s books, you might notice that the women in her stories were often ruled by “days.”

There was laundry day, and baking day. There was gardening day and canning day, when all the fruits and vegetables gathered from the garden were preserved.

Every week, women devoted entire days to certain tasks because they were time consuming and involved a great deal of physical labor.

Shopping in the dry goods district of New York City, 1886
Shopping in the dry goods district of New York City, 1886; from the Library of Congress


Marketing day took women out of the house from early morning to late afternoon. Unlike shoppers today who simply visit their local grocery store, Isabella’s contemporaries went from one specialty shop to another.

An 1872 trade card for a butcher's shop
An 1872 trade card for a butcher’s shop


They visited the green grocer and the baker.

A Boston bakery, 1917
A Boston bakery, 1917; from the Library of Congress


They stood in line at the confectionery and dry goods store.

Customers shopping for canned goods at a grocery in the early 1920s
Customers shopping for canned goods at a grocery in the early 1920s; from the Library of Congress


And then there were the specialty stores to visit, like the cobbler’s shop, where they purchased new shoes or repaired older shoes; and the drugstore where they shopped for lotions, salves, beauty and grooming products, and medicinal cures.

A cobbler with a customer, 1896, from Library of Congress
A cobbler with a customer, 1896, from Library of Congress


At each location they had to wait their turn for a store clerk to assist them in picking out the item they desired. With all the waiting and traveling from store to store, women spent hours shopping, even if their shopping list contained only a few items.

Kellogg's magazine ad, 1915
Kellogg’s magazine ad, 1915


But by 1900 a shift in shopping habits occurred, brought on by new products that gained a foothold in women’s buying habits. As the new century dawned, women began to buy more products designed to make their lives easier.

For example, women still visited the confectioners for fancy baked goods to serve their guests, but they were more willing to buy pre-made cookies and breads for their every-day table.

Magazine ad for Nabisco Wafers, about 1910
Magazine ad for Nabisco Wafers, about 1910


And though they still cooked a good breakfast for their families most mornings, they also knew serving cold cereal to their children once or twice a week was a time saver.

A 1919 magazine ad for Toasted Corn Flakes
A 1919 magazine ad for Toasted Corn Flakes


Another time saver: serving canned soup to their families instead of spending hours preparing soup in their own kitchens.

Campbell's soup print ad from about 1920
Campbell’s soup print ad from about 1920; from the Library of Congress


In the early years of the century, many products hit the market that proved to be convenient time-savers for women, and women began to trust the quality of pre-made products.

Trade Card for J. A. Dahn and Son Baking Company, from about 1900.
Trade Card for J. A. Dahn and Son Baking Company, from about 1900; from the Library of Congress


The more women employed pre-made products, the more time they saved for pursuits they enjoyed.

Some products that were introduced around the turn of the last century proved so popular, they are still on the market today.

Trade card for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, 1900.
Trade card for Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, 1900; from the Library of Congress


Print ad for Ivory Soap, 1898
Print ad for Ivory Soap, 1898; from the Library of Congress


Over the years, some products were re-purposed, such as Listerine, which was initially marketed as a topical antiseptic.

Magazine ad for Listerine, 1917.
Magazine ad for Listerine, 1917.


Other products, like Wesson Oil and Jell-O are still popular and might even be in your kitchen cabinet today.

Print ad for Wesson Oil from the Ladies Home Journal, 1919
Print ad for Wesson Oil from the Ladies Home Journal, 1919


Print ad for Jell-O, early 1920s
Print ad for Jell-O, early 1920s


But the biggest change to women’s shopping habits occurred in 1916, when Piggly Wiggly opened its first grocery store in Memphis Tennessee. The store introduced a revolutionary concept: self-service.

The entrance to the first Piggly Wiggly store in Memphis, Tennessee, with baskets on the left and cashier on the right; from the Library of Congress


Women no longer had to stand at a counter and wait for a clerk to assist them; they simply picked up a carrying basket on their way into the store, and browsed the aisles for goods to purchase.

Neat, well-stocked shelves in the Memphis Piggly Wiggly, 1917
Neat, well-stocked shelves in the Memphis Piggly Wiggly, 1917; from the Library of Congress


The store’s concept proved to be an immense time-saver for women. With the success of their Memphis store, Piggly Wiggly expanded to hundreds of locations and became the model for today’s modern grocery store.

Sunkist oranges on display in the window of a Piggly Wiggly, 1917
Sunkist oranges on display in the window of a Piggly Wiggly, 1917; from the Library of Congress


Piggly Wiggly stores led the way in many modern innovations. You can click here to see the various ways Piggly Wiggly revolutionized the grocery industry.