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The tawdry medical history of soft drinks

Illustration for article titled The tawdry medical history of soft drinks

It is a little-known fact that one the most outrageously unhealthy drinks in the world — Coca Cola — has its roots in a health craze of the Victorian Age. The history of sodas offers us a window on a strange time when medicine became a tasty, intoxicating treat.


In the nineteenth century, inventors created two machines that ultimately improved the lives of millions. These machines were the steam-driven espresso maker, and the soda fountain. Though the use of espresso has remained pretty much unchanged over the years, soda has gone from a healing elixir to tooth-eroding menace in just over a century. What changed?

Soda as Quack Medicine
Let's go back in time to the early nineteenth century, when many people believed that their health could be improved by an invigorating bath in natural mineral springs. If it was good to bathe in, surely it was also good to drink! And so as the century wore on, the health craze for mineral water led entrepreneurs to figure out ways to make and market the stuff on a massive scale.

Illustration for article titled The tawdry medical history of soft drinks

Entrepreneurs like John Matthews patented various designs for what were basically portable mineral-water makers that used pressurized tanks full of carbonic acid gas. These "soda fountains" were designed to be installed in drugstores where a pharmacist would operate the machine, mix the pressurized gas with water — and presto! A tall glass of health for anybody with a few pennies to rub together. By the early twentieth century, soda fountains looked almost like they do today. You'd pull a lever next to the flavor you wanted, and the machine would mix carbonic acid gas, water, and syrup to create a fizzy glass of relief for whatever ailed you.

Illustration for article titled The tawdry medical history of soft drinks

Soon, drugstore soda fountains were doing a brisk business and pharmacists were trying out a lot of different flavors and additives to make their bubbly concoctions more "medicinal" (and delicious). Tinctures of caffeine, tobacco, and cocaine were frequent additives, along with bitters and fruity flavors. Another favorite additive was phosphate, short for acid phosphate, which imparted a very sour flavor — sort of like lemon zest without the citrus taste. Phosphate had also been marketed in the late nineteenth century as an "invigorating tonic", and so it became a popular additive to drugstore drinks with or without soda.


Considering all the additives and tasty flavors people got in drinks at the soda fountain, it's clear that these sodas were basically the energy drinks of their day. No wonder the soda fountain became a popular place to hang out. The intoxicating fun was slowed somewhat in 1914, when the Harrison Act prohibited pharmacists from dispensing cocaine and opiates without a prescription. That meant you could still get high on soda, but just not quite as high.

The Rise of the Soft Drink
Until the 1920s, soda fountains and drugstores went hand in hand. But when Prohibition shut down public bars, soda fountains began to evolve. With no local saloons to haunt, people needed something else. Sodas became known as "soft drinks," the legal alternative to cocktails (and indeed, they shared many ingredients with cocktails). Though nobody was slurping cocaine in their soft drinks anymore, soda fountains became de facto saloons, giving birth to a popular myth of the soda fountain as a nest of naughtiness. Leery of being painted as purveyors of intoxicating medicines, soda fountain manufacturers stopped making claims that soda had any kind of medicinal effects. Many soda fountains detached themselves from drugstores. And so, though soda was still called a "soft drink," the official story was that it was just tasty rather than "invigorating," or any other adjective that suggested dancing, jazz, or something even scarier.

So what happened to the soda fountain? For decades, it thrived as a "soft" alternative to bars, merging with ice cream parlors to create the ultimate dessert destinations. "Soda jerks" were bartenders in these places, whipping up every kind of incredible confection, from chocolate phosphates and egg creams to rootbeer floats and crazy sundaes. In the video here, you can see 1950s movie star Rock Hudson playing the role of a soda jerk, showing off his ice cream skills. But by the mid-1960s, the soda fountain was slowly going out of style. It was too easy to get bottled sodas in the supermarket, and besides everybody was starting to think it was kind of lame that sodas didn't actually get you very intoxicated anymore.


Eventually medical knowledge came full circle. Now one of the biggest health care crises in America is obesity, partly caused by sugary drinks like Coca Cola. And school districts fight to keep sodas out of the lunchroom, to prevent kids from getting a little too "invigorated" on the mix of caffeine and sugar syrup that are still key ingredients in many popular soft drinks. Yesterday's health elixir is today's health menace.

Meanwhile, old-fashioned soda fountains and ice cream parlors are making a comeback. Partly inspired by the craze for antique cocktail recipes, entrepreneurs are opening spots like San Francisco's Ice Cream Bar, where soda jerks will whip up a special soda for you with homemade tinctures, real acid phosphate, and even some tobacco flavor just for that 1889 feeling. Just thinking about having a ginger beer float makes me feel peppy and invigorated.


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Wasn't Coca-Cola first invented as a hangover cure? Seems like that would have been mentioned.