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150 years of American pharmacy: The rise and fall of the pharmacy soda fountain




In August 1951, Drug Topics published an artist's impression of a drugstore. At the center of it all, surrounded by the "toiletree," cosmetic bar, baby department, and Rx refill station, stood the fountain where customers congregated. For nearly half a century, in fact, the soda fountain seemed to be the center of the drugstore universe, drawing customers in and making it a community social center.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some pharmacies began to offer carbonated "soda water" for its perceived medicinal value. Although the 1831 edition of U.S. Pharmacopeia no longer included soda water, it nevertheless continued to be served at specially designed fountains in a growing number of pharmacies. "The soda fountain came into its own in the 1880s as a social institution," argued historian Glenn Sonnedecker.


The soda fountain was at the center of the pharmacy in this 1951 cover illustration.
By 1919, Drug Topics featured a story on Pennsylvania Drug Co., a drugstore located in Pennsylvania Station in New York City. According to the story, the pharmacy offered "every drink that's mixed, shaken, frapped, and percolated, hot or cold, that human ingenuity has ever devised." The fountain had close to 9,000 customers a day and brought in $250,000 per year.

Ten years later, Drug Topics reported that 75% of the 61,865 pharmacies nationwide had a soda fountain and that nearly all new stores included fountains. The fountains drew in considerable income as well, with the drinks accounting for 17% of sales. "Every present tendency indicates that the future of the soda fountain will be even more important than the past," the magazine reported in its 1929 Fact Book.

To be sure, by the 1950s soda fountains had become a pharmacy fixture. Drug Topics had a special section on fountain management, which in an Aug. 13, 1951, column touted the cranberry chiffon pie and the advantages of square bays, which "give the fountain of the Albright & Wood Drug Store ... Gulfport, Miss., a neat and smartly attractive appearance."

Within a decade, however, soda fountains began a rapid decline. As fast-food chain restaurants spread and bottled soda became more widely available, pharmacies began to remove their fountains. By the 1970s, fewer than a third of pharmacies had fountains. While a few pharmacies still have fountains, what was once the center of the pharmacy—and many communities—has been relegated to a place of nostalgia for a bygone era.

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