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 and adding carbonated water. One or two scoops of ice cream, or occasionally malt powder, could be added. The result was served with a long-handled spoon, most commonly known as a "soda spoon", and drinking straws.
Origin of term
The term 'soda jerk' was a pun on 'soda clerk', the formal job title of the drugstore assistants who operated soda fountains, and was inspired by 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. All of the drinks were made of the unflavored carbonated water. 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 fountain counter.
The practice of operating a soda fountain in a drugstore reached its peak popularity in the 1940s but was popular from the 20s through the 50s.The position was highly coveted, and was commonly only awarded after several months or years of menial labor in the store. Soda jerking was dominated by popular young men with loud personalities and good people skills because of the popular environment and 'cool' association. These boys who worked at the shops were expected not only to serve the drinks but also socialize and entertain the guests.
The proliferation of ice cream parlors declined, however, as drive-ins and walk-up fast food stands grew in popularity, and grill and fry cooks replaced soda jerks. Some modern theme diners are styled after establishments in the 1950s, however, and include an actual soda jerk, along with retro jukeboxes and booth seating.
Generally, soda jerks wore iconic white paper or cloth caps called “Soda jerk caps”, button-up shirts with a bow tie and an apron as their required work uniform.
Soda jerks were known for having their own lingo for how their drinks were made. They created nicknames for different drinks. For example they called a glass of milk “baby” and a strawberry milkshake “in the hay”. They also had lingo to express how they wanted their drink to be served. Coffee being called “draw one” would be known to be served strong if said “draw one from the south” and if a drink was ordered with extra ice it was said to be “Heavy on the hail”.
Some of these terms are still used today. Egg Creams, the short hand for a chocolate soda with some milk, are still called Egg Creams and served in many places and are especially known for in New York where it originated.
Java, a short hand for coffee, is now in the name of many coffee shops like Java Coffee and Tea Co., Java! Java! Coffee, and Java Joe’s. Even Java computer programing has its logo as a cup of coffee.
Concrete is another term from Soda Jerk lingo that is still used. Concrete's definition has not changed from being used to order a super thick milkshake or custard. Today the company most known for using the term now is Culver's, because of their Concrete Mixers.
Soda Jerk is also a name of a restaurant/ soda shop on the Santa Monica pier in California inspired by an original Soda Jerk called Hilltown Lunch Counter and decor imitating or from the 30s and 40s.
Hilltown Lunch Counter was created in 1937 by Don McCafferty and is a family run business and its recreation is now run by his grandson, Kevin McCafferty.
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