NYPL Exhibitions

Soda Fountains

The first soda fountains opened in New York in the early 1800s but bore little resemblance to the ice-cream shops associated with the term today. Originally they offered only soda, which at the time meant therapeutic mineral waters dispensed from carbonating equipment and flavored with extractions made from medicinal herbs. New technology developed during the Civil War made it possible to offer an increasingly varied and more palatable menu of flavorings: maple, ginger, mint, lemon, and more. By the turn of the century, soda fountains were preparing ice cream sundaes and sodas, too.

Around the same time, soda fountains began to offer light lunches as well. As the lunch menus expanded, soda fountains increasingly became known as “luncheonettes,” a term that emerged in the 1920s. During Prohibition, workingmen accustomed to “free lunch” with a 5-cent beer at the corner saloon turned to luncheonettes, which started preparing hot dishes, larger sandwiches, and fried foods to appeal to the new clientele. Luncheonettes and soda fountains, with their satisfying but inexpensive bills of fare (and a popular array of floats, sundaes, malteds, egg creams, banana splits, and sodas) survived the Great Depression and prospered for the next several decades.