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An NPR story about old-fashioned fountain drinks making a comeback opened a window on 19th century medicine.

According to the story, soda fountains originally had a much more practical use than providing a treat. There is a reason old movies showed them in drug stores. Medicine often tasted awful, but sweetened soda water masked the bad taste, Darcy O’Neil, the author of Fix the Pumps, a book about soda fountains, told NPR. Adding flavors to make medicine easier to take is a concept still practiced today.

The 1870 book Dr. Chase’s Recipes, the mixologists’ guide to authentic old-fashioned drinks, provides one example of the need for soda. For typhoid, Dr. Chase prescribed a concoction of lavender, nitrites, balsam copaiba, and gum camphor (the NPR reporter sounds like she almost spit it out).

Two things strike me about this story:
–Pharmacies with pills, whose composition is based on scientific data, are a relatively new thing. Dr. Chase’s remedies are reminiscent of Hildegard von Bingen’s 12th-century writings about healing plants, although the 19th-century book excludes evil spirits and humors.
–Sugar water makes anything taste good.

Soda Jerk

By Alan Fisher, World Telegram staff photographer (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)