JF Ptak Science Books Post 1162
In the U.S. perhaps there have been few things of soft luzury so reachable to so many than the soda fountain. For a small fraction of a daily persistence-existence income, a person could go into one of these restaurants and enjoy a cup of coffee and a donut. Not only that, the soda fountain was approachable to younger people, including teenagers--perhaps the first time in this country when children and adults could indpendently visit a social place (that did not include organized religion) for paid entertainment, a sure sign if any indicating the growth of a real middle class, realish dispersal of capital* and a real sense of leisrure time.
For a while in the 30's and 40's and 50's the soda fountain occupied what might have been a real keystone position in the panoply of American entertainment. It seemed to be everywhere, in every city and town, in reality and in the imagination--it made a big appearance in literature and art and in the movies, a staple of average in the average American's life.
Of course there were taverns and saloons and wayside inns and restaurants, but these institutions were different, more removed from the population of "everyone" that the soda fountain drew on, and in. Even the idea of the "leisure time" that it took to enjoy such a place, a place in public that involved consuming products for money, an entertainment, was still sort of new. For example the idea of travel for the sake of leisure and entertainment was virtually unknown in the U.S. in he 18th century, and only started somewhat in the 1830's/40's, but even then under the guise of movement for hygiene or health benefits, taking the water (as in spas and hot baths, hyrdotherapy) and--a little later on--the airs. Vacation as we know it today would have still be almost entirely unfamiliar to Americans at the late 19th century and even into the early 'teens of the twentieth. Mass production and inventions like the automoble (and a decent income) really gave birth to the idea of leisure time, which would've preceded the soda fountain by a decade or two.
Somehow, I can't help but thinking about Henry James and the Soda Fountain. No doubt due to the remarkable Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, though what I'm thinking about is different, about what the brahmin James would've thought about the new development had he been around to see it. . Mostly this idea comes from James' obervations on NYC after his return from being abroad for decades, seeing the city in the Gilded Age unseen for so many years, and thinking of it all in terms of being "wasteful", putting him a in a funny category that would include folks like Thorstein Veblen and T.S. Eliot. Whereas I'm sure the later two (especially with Mr. Eliot) would see the development of such an affordable bit like the soda fountain as a Wasteland, I have a feeling that James would appreciate it as the small haven for new social activity that it was, if only he could have seen one (as he died in 1916). (I'm only slightly familiar with James, but this sentiment seems right to me, coming from the man who never wrote a bad sentence (or so Mr. McMurtry has sorta said). I think that he would have enjoyed its appearance. For others.)
All of this came about from reading a bit of the pamphlet (pictured above) the Fountain Operator's Manual (1940), a lovely and crisply written how-to for folks interested in operating their own soda fountain (and the source for all of these images). It contains advice on set-up, menus, figuring cost of foods, the beast preparations for the least amont of expense, trreatment of customers, advertisemet, and the like. It couldn't be edited out to anything finer than what it is--a simply refreshing, highly commendable job of writing. And through it all it builds such an anticipation of want, and paints such a glorious picture of life in a soda fountain, that I wish I could be in one, right now. Even if that "now" was 1940.
* I'm just talking about little "c" capital here; I don't mean at all that there was a significant distribution of wealth from the top 1% or 5% or 10% to the other classes. Just that there was a middle class, and that there was such a new thing as bona fide leisure time that reached so far down that non- or semi-working kids could go out and pay for food at a restautrant alongside adults.