A soda jerk (or soda jerker) is a person — typically a youth — who operates the soda fountain in a drugstore, often for the purpose of preparing and serving flavored soda water or 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 spoon, most commonly known as a "soda spoon", and drinking straws.
The name soda jerk came from the "jerking" action the server would use to swing the soda fountain handle back and forth when adding the soda water. The soda fountain spigot itself typically was a sturdy, shiny fixture on the end of a metal pipe or other similar structure sticking out of the counter by several feet and curving towards where the glasses would be filled. The unflavored carbonated water was used to make all of the drinks. Consequently the tap handle was typically large, as a busy shop would have the soda jerker using it frequently. This made the mixing of drinks a center of activity at the soda counter.
The position was highly coveted, and awarded only after several months or years of menial labor in the store. 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".
The practice of operating a soda fountain in a drugstore reached its peak popularity in the 1940s. 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.
- Allen, Irving (1993). The City in Slang. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509265-1.
- Partridge, Eric (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21258-8.
- McCafferty, Kevin. "Soda Jerks History". San Gabriel Valley Menus. Archived from the original on 2006-09-27. Retrieved 2006-11-03.
- Witzel, Michael (2002). "Splendour of the Soda Fountains". The American Drive-in Restaurant. Osceola: Motorbooks International. ISBN 0-7603-1350-4.
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