Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hidden Hazard: Exploding Soda Fountains

Lately carbonated beverages have been taking a beating in the media. Especially in their larger sizes, “sodas” are pilloried for their contributions to poor nutrition, obesity, and Type II diabetes among all ages. It wasn’t always so.

Modern carbonated “soft drinks” descend from the soda fountain, which dispensed these beverages on demand to earlier Americans. Our images of this wholesome institution contain no shadow of any hazards associated with these sodas, or with the fountains that purveyed them.

“Soda Fountain Photograph” (#4483) -- Henry Sudekum’s Ice Cream Store on Broadway in Nashville (1904). The store’s soda fountain dispensing station is on the right behind the counter.

Such hazards did exist. In August, 1872, Harper’s Magazine observed: “…there is considerable danger attending the manufacture of soda water. Frightful explosions sometimes occur, from the carelessness of the operator, or unnoticeable defects of the apparatus.”

At least two such explosions did occur in the heart of Tennessee’s capital city.

On May 12, 1881 the Nashville Daily American ran an article entitled “A Frightful Fate. J.R. Turner Instantly Killed by a Soda Fountain Explosion. His Skull Crushed to Pieces and His Brains Scattered.” The explicit details of Turner’s injuries, suffered in his store at 15 Broad Street, would gratify the most morbid viewer of contemporary forensic crime shows.

On May 13, the same paper published a follow-up story reporting an interview with J. C. Wharton, of “the well-known druggists” Wharton & Co., “as to the nature and causes of soda fountain explosions, in connection with the accident by which Mr. R. J. Turner lost his life.” Wharton reassured readers that such explosions were not associated with the ornate soda fountain itself, but with the pressure tanks used to create and store carbonated water. These tanks were generally located at the back of the store which housed the fountain. (Mr. Wharton, we suspect, did not want to discourage trade at his own establishment’s soda fountain.)

From the May 12, 1881 edition of The Daily American, reporting the death of J. R. Turner in a soda fountain explosion. A contemporary news outlet would probably edit out the more grisly details.

A shorter article in this edition, “The First Soda Fountain Explosion,” reported that such an event had previously occurred “…where Billy Fisher now has a saloon on Union Street. A man named Adam Henderson, on the 4th of July, 29 years ago, while charging a fount, was instantly killed by its explosion.”

From the May 13, 1881 edition of The Daily American, a retrospective report of an 1852 explosion and fatality. The date given for the explosion, the 4th of July, appears to be in error.

The date reported was evidence of sloppy reporting. The interment records for the Nashville City Cemetery show that A. Henderson, “killed by explosion,” was buried there on May 16, 1852. The cemetery’s official history (p. 27) confirms that “poor Adam Henderson … was killed in 1852 when the soda fountain at the Union Street confectionery shop exploded.”

Nashville’s soda fountain explosions were hardly unique. A cursory search on the internet yielded accounts of other fatal blasts in locations as diverse as Chattanooga, New York, Pittsburgh, Winchester, Massachusetts, and Adelaide, South Australia.

Compared to disasters like the Sultana riverboat fire and the Dutchman’s Bend train wreck, soda fountain explosions killed relatively few Tennesseans. Today we have eliminated their dangers, partly by replacing the fountain soda with the bottled variety, and the soda fountain with the convenience store. In the process we have created a new health hazard, far less horrific, but far more widespread.

The interment book of Nashville City Cemetery gives Henderson’s burial date as May 16, 1852. Cause of death listed is “killed by explosion.”

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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