IDAHO HISTORY: The drug store soda fountain became a fixture of city life

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANApril 6, 2014 

Soda fountains have been popular in Idaho for more than a century. Soda water, produced by the forced introduction of carbon dioxide into water or other beverages, creates the fizz that makes them pleasant to most palates.

As early as 1868, Wagner & Co.'s Boise Drug Store advertised in the Statesman that it had "Cool Sparkling Soda Water" with these choices of flavoring syrups: "Sarsaparilla, Raspberry, Strawberry, Lemon, Ginger and Pine Apple."

In 1872, under the heading "SODA FACTORY," the Statesman reported that "Moritz has his soda factory in active operation, and is supplying the bars and private families in town with soda and sarsaparilla at a very reasonable figure." (Sarsaparilla, a flavoring made from the root of a tropical plant, is similar in taste to root beer.)

For more than 20 years the best known soda fountain in Boise was that of druggist William H. Nye. On May 9, 1874, the paper noted that Nye had his soda fountain in order and would "administer a cooling, healthy, temperance beverage to ladies and gentlemen, all for the love of a lone 'bit.' " (Two bits was 25 cents in the parlance of the time.)

Two weeks later the paper again noted that "W. Nye of the Boise City Drug Store has his soda fountain in full blast. It has been sent to Boston, Massachusetts, and thoroughly overhauled and all new pipes added and works splendidly. It is a handsome piece of furniture to look upon, but when you come to draw from its fountain delicious temperance beverages, you are admonished that the soda fountain is an indispensable luxury during the hot season. Read his ad in another column, and go, ye thirsty, and drink of the fountain of life."

The ad, which ran regularly that summer, listed eight different flavors of syrup that could be had in a soda at the modest price of ten tickets for a dollar. When Nye installed an "artificial fountain" in his drug store later that summer that "spouted a jet of water near the Soda Fountain" the Statesman thought it "decidedly pleasant and refreshing to look upon these hot days. The flowers which surround the basin are full of life and tastefully displayed. Mr. Nye has shown great taste in arranging the many nice things he has in his shop, but this little affair beats all others if we are to be the judge."

Since Nye was a native of Boston, it was natural that he should send his soda fountain there when it needed repairs, or that he should order an "Arctic soda water apparatus" from his Boston contemporary James Walker Tufts later that summer since Tufts was probably the leading soda fountain manufacturer in the country. However, when Nye decided to order a second fountain in June 1875, he chose the "Keystone" apparatus made by Charles Lippincott of Philadelphia.

"The case is Tennessee marble of the most beautiful finish, tipped with silver and silver faucets," enthused the paper. "It is smaller and more convenient for moving than his Arctic fountain made in Boston." Nye's plan was to move his elegant new soda fountain to events such as picnics, fairs, and Fourth of July celebrations.

Boise had two soda factories in the 1880s that produced bottled soda water for home use with a wide variety of flavors. August Thommen opened his in the spring of 1882, and Frank Ehlers followed in 1884. In April 1890 the Statesman announced that druggists Whitehead & Boomer had just purchased and set up "a splendid new soda fountain," The soda fountain in the Whitehead Pharmacy would serve thirsty Boiseans for more than 70 years.

Other drug stores with fountains in the 1890s were Northrop & Joy and McCrum & Co. Ballou-Latimer got its new soda fountain in August 1902.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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