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The Soda Fountain

June 2024
5min read

Of bubbling waters, sacred marble, and old John Matthews, father of an industry and a flamboyant art form

As the ever-observant Gibbon noted long ago, mankind is much more liberal with applause for its destroyers than for its benefactors. What other explanation can there be for the fact that nowhere, despite thousands
of parks and squares bristling with military statuary, has his adopted country erected a statue to John Matthews? A benefactor of the first rank, Matthews gave us the soda fountain and popularized carbonated drinks, yet his only personal memorial is his grave in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn. It is, to be sure, no mean monument, for above a recumbent marble likeness of Matthews rises a granite Gothic canopy and spire to a height of thirtysix feet, richly carved all over with gargoyles, evangelists, expiring Matthews relatives, flora, fauna, and elaborate bas-reliefs representing great moments in the life of the deceased. Designed and partially executed in his own workshop, this imposing potpourri looks very much like one of Matthews’ own “cottage” soda fountains at the height of that eclectic art form. But the benefactor’s true monument is to be found in nearly every drugstore, luncheonette, and department store in America; his handiwork lives on every Main Street.

Natural carbonated waters have, of course, been bubbling up out of springs and spas since the dawn of history. Paracelsus, Lavoisier, and Dr. Joseph Priestley observed and experimented with them. A Swedish chemist named Bergman produced artificial carbonated or mineral water in 1778, and Professor Benjamin Silliman of Yale began manufacturing and bottling small quantities in New Haven in 1806. An early fountain was dispensing various homemade Vichy, Kissingen, and Apollinaris “seltzers” in New York by 1810; they were supposed to cure obesity. But it was the arrival of John Matthews in New York about 1832 that made soda-water drinking an industry and, incidentally, offered the grogshop and the saloon the first real competition they had ever encountered.

As students of the Matthews mausoleum can learn by twisting their necks to observe the canopy’s carved ceiling, the benefactor-to-be began as an apprentice in the London shop of Joseph Bramah, inventor, among other things, of the permutation bank lock, a hydraulic press, and a new kind of seamless lead tubing. There, in eternal stone, is young John, learning how to construct machinery to make carbonic acid gas. In an adjoining panel, he appears again, aged twenty-one, taking ship to seek his fortune in New York, doubtless convinced that there was no future for a seltzer man in a nation of confirmed tea-drinkers.

Matthews hung out his shingle at 55 Gold Street and was soon manufacturing carbonating machinery and selling charged water to retail stores. The equipment was simple enough—a cast-iron box, lined with lead, where carbonic acid gas was formed by the action of sulphuric acid (then often called oil of vitriol) on marble dust. The gas was then purified by passing it through water, and conducted into a tank partially filled with cool water. An employee rocked the tank for a quarter to a half hour, until the water was impregnated and bubbly. To imitate popular mineral waters, one added their salts to the mixture.

The introduction of marble chips was an American development, for Bramah had used whiting and chalk. But marble was easier and cheaper to come by in New York: the enterprising Matthews firm at one point acquired all the scrap from the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Although a few of the devout thought this use unseemly, these chips alone supplied some twenty-five million gallons before the supply gave out. Pressure, of course, is always a hazard in gas manufacture, and there were a number of noisy explosions among Matthews’ competitors in the early days, but his firm had a special, if rather unusual, method of keeping the pressure from rising above the optimum level of 150 pounds.

The safety valve was an ex-slave named Ben Austen, one of the earliest employees, a man of intelligence and, above all, strength. When the force of a new batch of soda water needed measuring, the job fell to Ben, who simply placed his powerful thumb over the pressure cock. When it blew his thumb away, the Matthews people estimated they had reached 150 pounds and that the water was fully charged. “Ben’s Thumb” was long a term in the jargon of the trade. During the Civil War draft riots, when angry Irish mobs roamed the New York streets seeking to hang any Negro they could find, Matthews was obliged to ship Ben out to safety in a packing case, as though he were a tank of the product.

As time went on, several strong competitors entered the field—John Lippincott of Philadelphia, A. D. Puffer of Boston, and James W. Tufts of Somerville, Massachusetts (he did so well eventually that he founded Pinehurst, North Carolina)—but the next great breakthrough, and the one which brought them all prosperity, was made in 1838 or 1839 by Eugene Roussel, a Frenchman who was selling plain soda water at his perfume shop in Philadelphia. With the ingenuity that characterizes all Frenchmen when dealing with the opposite sex, he decided to add flavors to his customers’ drinks. As simple as that, but no one had thought of it. Soon the crude soda fountains of Matthews and his competitors were all keeping syrups on hand, in orange, cherry, lemon, teaberry, ginger, peach, and many other flavors. Root beer and birch beer and sarsaparilla appeared, bottled or made at the fountain. Attempts were made to imitate, without alcohol, the flavors of various wines and champagnes, but apparently less successfully.

For a very modest investment, Matthews could put any chemist or other entrepreneur in business. Here is one offering:

Only six tumblers were provided, but they could be washed in a jiffy. They were simply rinsed in cold water, for germs concerned nobody, and their existence was not suspected. Ice cooling had been introduced and business was booming, so that Art, which had been waiting in the wings, could now step forward and embrace Commerce. The Leonardo of the soda fountain was one G. D. Dows, of Lowell, Massachusetts, who decided to try his hand at improving the looks of the crude soda fountain in his brother’s store, and wound up with a combination fountain and ice shaver housed in a white Italian marble box. It became so popular that Dows opened his own place in Boston.

The “cottage” fountain, as this kind of design was later called, now took over the field. Basically boxes resting on a counter, they ran riot through the art of decoration—Gothic, Roman, Byzantine, Egyptian, Japanese, Brooklyn Hittite, anything in any combination— and bore names like The Frost King, The Icefloe, The Egyptian, The Avalanche, and The Cathedral. Fanciful spigots led out of tombs and temples and chalets decorated with sphinxes, lions, nymphs, knights; allegory ran wild. Names of flavors and famous mineral waters would appear on the larger models. There is a tale of an old lady who walked around a giant fountain displayed at a feie in the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York, reading off to herself the distinguished names graven next to each spigot: Saratoga, Deep Rock, Kissingen, Washington. Then she turned to the attendant. “I didn’t know,” she said, “that the gallant Seventh had fought in all these battles.”

In 1870, John Matthews was gathered to his fathers and entombed in the elegant manner we have described. Meanwhile the “cottage” became too small a device, what with the hundreds of flavors now offered, and great wall-models now appeared, erected like altars behind the counter, gleaming in marble and onyx and with even more fanciful architecture. One boasted 300 flavors. Another cost $40,000, a fortune in those days.

Now another great benefactor appeared, who united the ice cream parlor and the soda fountain. Although he has rival claimants, the historians of the industry press the accolade for inventing the ice cream soda upon Robert M. Green, the soft-drink concessionaire at the Franklin Institute Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1874. Among the drinks he had been selling was one concocted of fresh sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water, but one busy day he ran out of cream. In desperation he bought some vanilla ice cream, intending to melt it, but the customers were so pressing that he used it in its congealed form. Apparently the drinkers uttered glad cries of joy, for Green thereafter made ice cream sodas on purpose , and the recipe spread over the country.

By the end of the century, the soda fountain was big business. The four original firms had combined, as was then stylish, into a trust. It was no longer necessary for soda-fountain proprietors to make their own gas, behind the counter or in the cellar, because it could now be purchased in portable steel cylinders. The wall temples began to disappear in favor of the modern counter, with the apparatus hidden inside it, and the great empty space where the old fountain had stood was covered with an ornate looking-glass and clever displays of tumblers—washed nowadays in hot water. Food too was now offered for sale, and in the twenties came mechanical refrigeration. It was a long way from Lavoisier, from the dissenting parson Priestley shaking up the first glass of artificial mineral water with gas acquired at a nearby brewery, from Ben’s thumb, and from that great silent soda fountain in Greenwood Cemetery. But a great thirst had at last been quenched.

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