I don’t drink soda very often, but for some reason I’ve been in a huge Dr Pepper groove recently. That stuff is awesome! So imagine my surprise at lunch the other day when I was drinking my Dr Pepper and I noticed the words “Est. 1885” on the can. Hey! That’s right in the middle of the Gilded Age! I was tickled pink to realize I was enjoying the same tasty treat as the characters in my Montana Romance series very well could have been enjoying. And, of course, I decided to dig a little deeper.
It’s long been in the back of my mind that soda shops were a major factor in the social life of the middle class at the very end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. What I didn’t know is that soda, or carbonated water, at least, goes back way, way further than that.
For millennia people have praised the healing and restorative powers of natural mineral springs. Entire towns, like Bath in England, rose up around these springs. Drinking the water was considered a cure. Sure enough, by the 1700s, intrepid individuals were hard at work figuring out how to mimic the earth’s cures on their own. Several scientists and chemists worked on the process of carbonating water. By the early 1770s, Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman and English scientist Joseph Priestley had invented equipment that could reliably make “soda water”.
Throughout the first half of the 1800s the popularity of soda water as a cure grew and people grew more inventive in ways to flavor it and sell it. But it wasn’t until the 1880s that some of the carbonated beverages we hold near and dear were invented.
We think of Coke as a die-hard staple of the modern diet. But Coke was actually an attempt to recreate a whole different beverage. Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 in Columbus, Georgia by a man named John Pemberton. The prototype was an alcoholic beverage called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which was intended to be an imitation of a popular coca wine of the time. But then, in 1886, Fulton County, Georgia passed prohibition legislation. In response, Pemberton took the alcohol out of his wine and replaced it with carbonated water. Voila! Coke was born.
Pemberton marketed his new beverage as a cure for all sorts of diseases, including morphine addiction, headaches, and impotence. And people took him seriously, because, remember, at this point soda was considered a cure-all, not the sugar-infested, weight-ballooning, diabetes-starter it is today. Of course, several lawsuits followed. Not over Coke’s curative properties, however, but over who really invented it and who should hold the patents and therefore collect the profits from sales of the beverage. It was an issue because from the word “go”, Coke was it.
Ah, but you’ll notice something in that story. 1886. Coke was actually invented a year after Dr Pepper. Dr Pepper was invented in Waco, Texas by a Brooklyn-born pharmacist, Charles Alderton. There were no patent disputes with Dr Pepper, but it too was originally sold in drug stores as a tasty cure for what ailed you.
It’s interesting to point something out: Both Coke and Dr Pepper are Southern inventions. Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about the vast differences in levels of prosperity in the Gilded Age between the North and West and the South? The South was poor. It’s industry had lagged behind in the middle of the century and was struggling to compete with the rest of the country in the late 19th century. Most of the great tycoons of the Gilded Age were northerners. In a way it’s no surprise that amazing success and profitability in the South came through the invention of something that cost pennies to buy and that could be enjoyed by the masses. Soda was not a luxury good, and in the end it was a great leveler.
So what about those soda shops?
Unsurprisingly, technology and politics squished together to being about the rise of these icons of life a hundred years ago. As the machinery needed to create soda water and infuse it with flavored syrups – like Coke and Dr Pepper – became more accessible, soda fountains began popping up in every corner drug store. Those drug stores began selling sandwiches and light fare, not to mention ice cream, another new invention. Before long, the soda fountains, sandwiches, and ice cream moved out into their own establishments. Soda became less of a medicinal delight and more a recreational one.
Soda fountains were also championed by the reformers and moralists who were in favor of the prohibition of alcohol. Soda was considered the moral alternative to the “demon drink”. As the temperance movement gained steam, so these new ice cream parlors and soda shops gained customers. In my mind, I’ve always had a pristine, almost nerdy image of the early 20th century soda shop. There may very well be a reason for that. Compare a soda shop to a speakeasy, for example, and you get a picture of the kind of patron each would have. Personally, I’d rather have a chocolate malted milkshake than a whiskey on the rocks, but that’s just me.
These days soda has been vilified as a leading cause of 21st century health problems, but a lot of that comes from the changeover from manufacturing them with high fructose corn syrup instead of cane sugar. Coke made the change in 1980, although you can still get “Mexican Coke” in the US which is made with cane sugar. Oh, and yes, one of the original ingredients in Coca-Cola in 1886 WAS cocaine, but only a small amount.
So yes, I try to avoid soda most of the time, but sometimes a Coke or a Dr Pepper (which is officially spelled without a period after the Dr, btw) just hits the spot.
But NOT Pepsi for me. Never Pepsi. 😉