Archive for August 22nd, 2011

Steam and Soda

Odd things lead me back to writing related topics.  Last week I wrote about heading to America Eats, and as part of that talked about their retro menu of non-alcoholic drinks.  There was one off-menu drink our server told us about that we didn’t get a chance to try called a Baltimore Cream, an orange, peach, and cream beverage he described as similar to an orangecicle.  Problem with a menu as deep as America Eats was not getting to try everything, and that Baltimore Cream didn’t make the cut in favor of trying the Lactart.

So that lead to a search for Baltimore Cream recipes.  And Lactart recipes.  And Phosphate recipes.  Which all lead me to the book I’m rapidly digesting called Fix The Pumps (available on Amazon).  It’s half history and half cookbook, but the cover is what really drew me in, as there’s only one word I can use to describe that illustration.

It’s pretty Steampunk, isn’t it?

And here’s the thing, even though there wasn’t much steam involved, there’s a lot there that could work in a Steampunk novel, especially since the rise of the soda fountain happened coincident with the era that Steampunk is typically set.  And really, the seediest and most interesting era of the soda fountain was during those early few years.  Not only did many of the drinks actually contain alcohol (but much more cheaply than available at a bar due to different tax laws on alcohol and “medicine”) but also contained “butyric ether, acetic aldehyde, chloroform, amyl butyrate, glycerin, and ethanol,”1 any number of drugs including, “strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin,” and most infamously, cocaine.

The original recipe of Coca Cola is not an urban legend.  It had cocaine in it, and that was a common ingredient in fountain drinks for several decades until the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906.

The cocaine made for an interesting daily ritual for “brain workers,” working as a feedback loop with alcohol.  The day would open with a cocaine laced drink to get the brain going better than coffee ever could.  A few more drinks during the day (up to 8 for some customers) would keep the brain going at the hyper rate that cocaine’s stimulant effects allowed.  The day would then end with the application of a depressant, alcohol, to counteract the stimulation of the cocaine.  Next morning, no worries about hangovers, as cocaine also served as an effective cure for them.

These addicts doing the cocaine-alcohol daily cycle were almost exclusively men, and even then were largely people who thought for a living.  Politicians, bankers, lawyers, and the like.

It really is a fantastic potential base for a character.  Now, soda fountains don’t belong everywhere within Steampunk.  There was some spread of the fountains to London and Paris, but they fed a lust for sugar that was almost exclusively American.  They were located within pharmacies, and were crafted with the same care as bars of the era with fine woods, the later image of a soda fountain in a diner environment was a WWII era modification.

Which means they lived in the right era, but in a location were Steampunk isn’t as frequently set: the cities of America’s East Coast.  But it’s still a fantastic use, a fantastic construct, and a part of the era that’s easy to forget.

So, I’m throwing down the gauntlet and hoping some writers might put the old soda fountain into their late 19th century stories.  Sure they don’t always fit, but it’s hard to turn down the old cocaine drinks of a bygone era before the US Government started protecting people against the things they were eating and drinking.

1. Both lists of used ingredients from pg 9 of Fix the Pumps.  The first, if you’re curious, was a recipe for pineapple syrup.


Soda jerk picture digital ID cph.3c13825 from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division. “No copyright restriction known. Staff photographer reproduction rights transferred to Library of Congress through Instrument of Gift.”  Retrieved from Wikipedia.

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