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What Is a Soda Shop?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 16, 2024
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A soda shop, sometimes called a soda fountain, is an eatery that specializes in soft drinks and other treats, such as milkshakes and ice cream. Soda fountains were popular gathering places in the early and middle years of the 20th century, particularly in the Midwestern United States. While most have since vanished, some remain open in the present day, usually by capitalizing on their nostalgic value. They were often associated with teens and youth culture. As a result, the soda shop often appears as a hangout for young people in comic books, TV shows, and movies set in the past.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, travel was still an inconvenience for many Americans. Small and medium-sized towns often had a few centrally shops that provided both commerce and social interaction. Many such shops, such as grocers or drugstores, capitalized on their status as central gathering places by installing soda fountains, machines that provided soft drinks. In the 20th century, some specialized businesses were established around these popular devices. This was the origin of the soda shop.

The shop was a popular place for young people to gather in many American communities. In addition to carbonated soft drinks, many offered ice cream and related drinks, such as floats, malts, and milkshakes. They were considered safe places for dates and other social activities. The advent of self-service soda machines spelled an end to these businesses, many of which had closed down by the 1970s. A few remained open well into the 21st century, often bearing retro décor and authentic soda fountains to create a nostalgic charm.

These locales provide important locations in classic films such as It’s a Wonderful Life, set in the 1940s, and American Graffiti, set in the 1960s. In an episode of the original Twilight Zone TV series, a character is charmed to discover an old-fashioned soda fountain, not realizing he has traveled into his own past. The popular children’s comic Archie used a soda shop as a gathering place for its teen protagonists long after real soda fountains had mostly disappeared.

The soda shop has become an iconic symbol of small-town America and teen culture. Modern films set in the past often feature these shops to quickly establish this kind of atmosphere. Such a shop plays a crucial role in the 1998 film Pleasantville, about modern-day teens who enter a 1950s fantasy world. In the 2005 film Reefer Madness, teens gather at a soda shop for a rousing musical number. The central character in 1985’s hit movie Back to the Future gets into a fight in a soda shop, as do the heroes of 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; both films are set in the 1950s.

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Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Jun 07, 2014

@ysmina-- I'd say go for a milkshake. If the soda shop is also a diner, then stick to the desserts, shakes and sodas.

We have a soda shop in our town. The place was first opened in 1939. After some years, it was made into a grocery, then a pharmacy and now it's a diner and soda shop. So they have what a soda shop would have, in addition to food. The food is okay, but the real reason I go there is the shakes. I also love the look of the place, it's like going back in time. The best part is that the place is authentic and very old.

I think we need to keep the soda shop culture alive because it's so American and it's great.

By ysmina — On Jun 07, 2014

I've never been to a soda shop. I've been to American diners with a retro feel, but that's different. I think a soda shop is a great idea. I hope I can visit one, one day. If I do, which soda should I order?

By ddljohn — On Jun 06, 2014

Soda shops seem to be replaced by coffee shops nowadays. When youngsters want to meet up, they usually meet at the coffee shop. The drink has changed but the idea is the same.

There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood and I often go there to spend time, read the news or work on my laptop along with a cup of coffee. Friday afternoon, after high school kids get out of school, they make their way to the coffee shop in large numbers. They order drinks and just hang out. The place is packed every Friday.

I guess the difference between a soda shop and a coffee shop is that a coffee shop is frequented by people of all ages whereas a soda shop in the 1960s was probably frequented by young men and women mostly. So in that regard, coffee shops haven't replaced soda shops entirely.

By Vincenzo — On Jun 02, 2014

These are actually making a bit of a comeback. It is becoming increasingly common to find one operating in family-owned pharmacies. Those are about more than nostalgia -- it's a good way to give customers something to do while they are waiting for their prescriptions to be filled.

By Terrificli — On Jun 01, 2014

If you happen to find one of these things opening, go on in and order something. You can find some drinks that were common to soda shops but didn't quite make the transition to the canned beverage market.

Take a cherry phosphate, for example. That is simply carbonated water, simple syrup and cherry flavoring but it is pretty darned unique. And you can usually only find one in a soda shop.

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