A soda jerk is someone who works at a soda fountain, mixing ice cream sodas to order. This job is fairly rare in the modern era, as soda fountains have largely vanished, although a few can still be found in various corners of the earth, often preserved for their nostalgia value. Typically, soda jerks are youths, using their job to earn some pocket money.
The origins of the term “soda jerk” are related to the classic jerking motion used to pump soda water. Ice cream sodas were traditionally made by pouring a flavored syrup into a tall glass, adding a few pumps of soda water, and then scooping in ice cream. Originally, soda jerks were known as “soda jerkers,” in a reference to the fact that they had to jerk the soda fountain to produce the required amount of soda.
Soda fountains date to the late 1800s, and they were popular well through the 1940s. A soda fountain could be a standalone establishment, typically offering an assortment of ice cream-related dishes and sometimes food like hamburgers as well, or a soda fountain could be located inside another business. Classically, many drugstores through the 1940s had soda fountains attached, allowing people to relax after running their errands in the drugstore.
The soda jerk would have been an integral figure at the soda fountain. While the job of mixing sodas is fairly simple, there is some finesse involved in learning how to mix ice cream drinks, and many soda jerks undoubtedly invented all sorts of peculiar soda combinations while bored on the job. Modern ice cream sodas and floats are typically made with packaged soda, rather than soda water, except in establishments which are going for a retro look and feel.
The iconography of the soda fountain and accompanying soda jerk is huge, especially in the United States. Soda fountains thrived through two world wars and the Great Depression, creating a place of refuge, recreation, and fellowship for people, even in hard times. In small communities, the soda fountain could turn into a social hub, where people met to exchange gossip and information, and an assortment of films set in the first half of the 20th century feature a quick stop at the soda fountain.
A modern soda jerk doesn't need to have quite the same skills as his or her historical counterpart, except in a very traditionally run soda fountain. The fun of the job largely lies in the chance to interact with familiar customers, and to introduce people to new or interesting flavors. A soda jerk is also typically responsible for cleaning around the soda fountain, such as wiping down counters, mopping floors, and so forth, creating an environment which is sanitary and pleasant for customers.