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What Is a Soda Shop?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
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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 shops 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.

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The soda 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 soda shops, 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 shops 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 soda 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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