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Soda jerk passing ice cream soda between two soda fountains in 1936.

A soda jerk (or soda jerker[1]) was a person — typically a youth — who operated the soda fountain in a drugstore.[2] The term refers to the person who made an ice cream soda. This was made by putting flavored syrup into a specially designed tall glass, adding carbonated water and, finally, one or two scoops of ice cream. The result was served with a long handled "soda spoon" and straws. The name soda jerk came from the jerking action the server would use on the soda fountain handle when adding the soda water.[3]

The position was highly coveted, and awarded only after several months or years of menial labour in the store.[4] Some modern theme diners are styled after establishments from the 1950s and include an actual soda jerk, along with standard jukeboxes and booth seating. Michael Karl Witzel, writing in The American Drive-In Restaurant (2002) describes the archetypal soda jerk as being "[a] consummate showman, innovator and freelance linguist...the pop culture star of the Gilded Age".[4]

Very few drugstores still serve ice cream and soda, which reached its peak in the 1940s. However, some drug stores, usually in small rural towns, still do. The proliferation of ice cream parlors declined as drive-ins and walk-up fast food stands grew in popularity, replacing the soda jerk with grill men and fry cooks.[4] The McDonaldization of American society, and its drive to ever-increasing efficiency in particular, led to fast food restaurants requiring customers to fill their own drinks at the soda fountain, hastening the redundancy of the soda jerk.[5]


  1. ^ Allen, Irving (1993). The City in Slang. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195092651.  
  2. ^ Partridge, Eric (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415212588.  
  3. ^ McCafferty, Kevin. "Soda Jerks History". San Gabriel Valley Menus. Retrieved 2006-11-03.  
  4. ^ a b c Witzel, Michael (2002). "Splendour of the Soda Fountains". The American Drive-in Restaurant. Osceola: Motorbooks International. ISBN 0760313504.  
  5. ^ Kivisto, Peter (2001). "Weberian Theory and McDonaldization". Illuminating Social Life. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press. pp. 44. ISBN 0761987177.  

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