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A Scoop of Americana: The Ice Cream Soda

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This post was written by Rachel Gordon, Educational Programs Specialist in the Library’s Informal Learning Office and originally appeared on the blog Minerva’s Kaleidoscope. We wanted to share some of the ice cream content found in Chronicling America!

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan declared July National Ice Cream Month. He also designated the third Sunday of the month as National Ice Cream Day, but a day celebrating ice cream was not a new idea. As this newspaper page shows, it was observed as far back as 1920, when ice cream was flown from Cleveland to Washington, D.C. to mark the occasion.

colorful set of five ice cream sodas lined up on a railing of a balcony
Ice cream sodas made by the author using recipes in the Library’s collections.
L – R, Giant Frosted Mocha Soda, Tall Tart Cooler, Peach Frost, Grape Fizz, Pear Soda, Brown Cow.

Ice cream soda is a quintessentially American way to enjoy ice cream and there is plenty of related material to inspire you in the Library’s collections. Where did this phenomenon come from? As with many iconic foods, there are several origin stories. An article from 1922 claims New York as its birthplace, countering the story that the drink was created in Philadelphia in 1874 by Robert M. Green. Another piece from 1927 also gives credit to two New Yorkers. Wherever it was invented, the drink quickly took hold.

Man and child sip ice cream soda at a fountain counter
Nyssa, Oregon. Japanese-American farm workers have an ice cream soda on weekly trip to town, July 1942; Russell Lee, photographer; Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division

Seeing drugstore soda fountain and soda jerk as synonymous with America isn’t new. In 1936, Harold Bentley, a scholar at Columbia University, wrote “the soda fountain has become an institution in this country like the public school, the movie, or baseball.” The opening page of his article, Linguistic Concoctions of the Soda Jerker,** describes how British students were far more interested in visiting soda fountains than famous New York landmarks.

As with many new fads, a whole culture grew up around the ice cream soda. Customers flocked to the drugstores where they were sold. The servers, or soda jerks, became as much a part of the experience as the drink itself (the term comes from the jerking motion used to operate the fountain). They were often personable, ebullient young men who entertained patrons with their repartee and mixology skills. Their slang fascinated customers and academics alike. Harold Bentley’s article includes a long list of soda jerk jargon. “Twist it, choke it and make it cackle” meant a chocolate malted milk with egg. “Shake one in the hay” was a strawberry milkshake; a “Ninety-nine” was the head soda man. It’s not surprising that the job was sometimes a career stop for aspiring actors – mid-century stars Danny Kaye and Alan Ladd both worked as soda jerks.

Instruction manuals like Rigby’s Reliable Candy Teacher (1909) laid out what a soda fountain proprietor should know and do. Cleanliness was paramount, both for the apparatus and for uniforms. It was important to have the “fountain clerk dressed in white coat and apron; never allow him to wear soiled linen.” Newspapers devoted many column inches to the ice cream soda. Good hygiene was a major concern, as the alarmingly-titled To Stop Dirty Soda Fountains from Spreading Disease and Death outlined in graphic detail, and with gruesome illustrations. A piece from 1921 bemoaned the cost of ice cream sodas, blaming soda jerks’ high wages and excessive laundry bills, and overly elaborate soda fountain designs.

Not all the coverage was negative, as this whimsical Soda and Sundaes story shows, but if articles did put you off heading to the local drugstore, you could always make your own drinks. Food writers offered up many ways to do this. Ice Cream Sodas at Home included recipes for Peach Frost, Brown Cow, Black and White Soda, Coffee, and Strawberry sodas. Summer Drinks Sparkle for Youngsters suggested making Grape Fizz, Chocolate Ice Cream Soda, Orange Whizz and Tall Tart Cooler on hot afternoons. Super-sized drinks were popular too. The Giant Frosted Mocha Soda was so large that the recipe recommended serving it in a flower vase. A “happy talk super-duper,” “cooler for a two-some” Pear Soda was perfect for sharing.

Three recipes from a newspaper using fruit juice, seltzer, and ice cream for ice cream sodas
Arizona sun. (Phoenix, Ariz.), 04 July 1957. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

For a nostalgic summer experience, why not make your own ice cream sodas? Try a few of the recipes above and have a taste-testing session to determine your favorites. Mine’s the Tall Tart Cooler!

And to find out more about ice cream’s place in American culture, here are a few useful items from the Library’s collections:

  • The Ice Cream Cone covers the history of ice cream. It includes many links to other resources, including Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten vanilla ice cream recipe.
  • There are great vintage ice cream recipes and more in this blog post from our colleagues in the Serial & Government Publications Division.
  • The Ice Book, published in 1891, describes the history of ice cream before it reached “the pinnacle of summer refreshment” in its American version (page 3), and offers an impressive selection of recipes (from page 20).
  • The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Search for more ice cream and soda fountain recipes!

** Bentley’s article is available through the digital research platform JSTOR. The first page is generally accessible; to read the whole article, log in through a school or college library.

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  1. How about something next about the “Milkshake” from the same “Dairy
    Bar era?

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