Historic City Memories: An ice cream soda

An ice cream soda

Ode to our forgotten soda fountains

By Geoff Dobson

When was the last time you had a real ice cream soda or, for that matter, a “real” milk shake?

Not an ice cream float made with a soda and a scoop of ice cream, but one made at an old-fashioned soda fountain. Soda fountains and soda jerks have disappeared.

From the 1880’s through the early 1960’s soda fountains were ubiquitous American fixtures.

Indeed, the Saturday Evening Post featured soda fountains on its front cover at least three times. The first in 1912 with the cover by famed American magazine and book illustrator Clarence F. Underwood, followed by an illustration by Frances Tipton Hunter in 1936, and one by Norman Rockwell in 1953.

At one time, soda fountains were a fixture at the various drug stores, in St. Augustine – Touchton’s Drug Store, Hays Pharmacy, St. George Pharmacy, Padgett’s Walgreens Agency, McCartney’s Drug Store, McDonald’s Rexall and Lucas & Wiles.

The two five and dimes, Woolworth’s and McCrory’s had “luncheonettes” at which ice cream sodas and real milkshakes were served along with club sandwiches with potato salad and other light lunches. All are now gone.

The soda fountains across the nation were all similar. The older counters were made of marble, the newer were made of Formica with stainless steel trim. In front were stools on a stainless steel pedestal with a footrest on the front. The seat was typically upholstered in Naugahyde and could endlessly spin around. A delight for small children. The writer often wondered what type of animal a “nauga” was. The material was actually named for a town in Connecticut where it was manufactured.

Behind the counter were various dispensers for flavored syrups, and an ice cream cabinet. Behind the back bar, typically made of stainless steel, was usually a mirror in front of which would repose the glassware.

On the back bar would also be one or two Hamilton-Beach milk shake machines made of stainless steel. The fountain would have several soda taps as well as containers for cherries, strawberries, crushed pineapple and Borden’s or Harlick’s malted milk — necessary for creation of sundaes, banana splits and malteds. Walgreen soda fountains featured malteds made with Harlick’s.
The lord and master of the soda fountain was the soda jerk, a profession which has now also disappeared. He often wore a paper hat, white shirt and black bow tie.

At the soda fountain, one could order a phosphate, or a lime ricky, or other drinks. The phosphate basically was seltzer water from the soda water tap mixed with fruit syrup. The lime ricky was lime juice with the seltzer water. When soda fountains were at their height of popularity, there were no pre-mixes as today. Thus, making a proper phosphate or soda required skill so as to maintain consistency but also so as not to waste the gas used in the seltzer water which was comparatively expensive.

Various ice cream sundaes were available. The crème de la crème of the sundaes was the banana split topped with a scoop of chocolate ice cream, a scoop of strawberry ice cream and a scoop of vanilla — made with a split banana in a glass, oblong, banana split dish. Crushed strawberries were on top of the strawberry scoop, chocolate syrup on top of the chocolate and crushed pineapple on the vanilla. All of this was topped by whipped cream, followed by the ubiquitous cherry.

Milk shakes were real milk shakes made with syrup, three scoops of hand-dipped ice cream and milk, whipped up in the milk shake machine and poured from a stainless steel container into a tall tulip shaped glass, topped with whipped cream and the cherry. The writer’s old boss, always like his shakes made with chocolate ice cream.

A “malted” would have some of the malted milk powder added. Today, most “shakes” come out of a soft serve machine and are made with a pre-mix with emulsifiers, “better living through chemistry.” The difference between a real milk shake and the miracle of modern chemistry we get today is the difference between night and day.

The pièce de résistance of the soda fountain, however, was the ice cream soda. It was a work of art. Different sodas had different names dependent upon the flavor of the syrup and the ice cream. To make a “Black and White”; first squirt some chocolate syrup in a tall tulip glass. Variations were made using cola syrup or root beer syrup either with or without the chocolate syrup.

The seltzer tap if pulled forward would emit the seltzer water under high pressure. Pushed backwards would be plain water. About two quick pulls forward would mix the syrup with the seltzer. Fill the glass with seltzer about 1/3 to 1/2 full.

Some variations would add some milk stirred with a long spoon. Add a large scoop of ice cream. Add another squirt of seltzer on the ice cream which will then form white foam on top. Another scoop of ice cream on top with whipped cream and cherry completes the soda.

A “Hoboken” was made with pineapple syrup and chocolate ice cream. A “Catawba flip” was made with grape syrup, an egg, and seltzer without the whipped cream. Writer’s note, this probably violates all kinds of health standards today because of the egg.

As indicated, ice cream sodas have gone the way of all flesh. In truth because of the necessity of the squirts of seltzer water and the lack of tulip glasses they cannot be made at home. Lucas & Wiles drug store, telephone no. 1418, was located on San Marco Avenue opposite from the Firestone Store. The store was founded by Bert Lucas and Earnest Wiles in the 1920’s. Records of the Secretary of State indicate that the original corporation was dissolved in 1940, but memory of it lives on.

The corporation has since been reincorporated although the last time the writer was in its business premises, now on North Ponce De Leon, he did not observe a soda fountain. Touchton’s was a Florida based drugstore chain and at one time was the main rival to The Jack Eckerd Drug Company. The St. George Pharmacy was located where the Bunnery is today. In its later years, it was not actually a pharmacy. Hays Pharmacy was located on Anastasia Boulevard, but when it moved to a new location further to the east on Anastasia Boulevard, the soda fountain was discontinued.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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