seattle soda fountain 1900 pd

This isn’t the most high-resolution photo in the world, but even as it is I thought it was a very interesting view that you don’t see every often: an everyday restaurant at the turn of the last century. This soda fountain was owned and operated by the Stewart & Holmes Drug Company and located at 627 First Avenue in downtown Seattle, Washington, just a few blocks from the waterfront. This view was found in a book published in 1900 and thus dates from that era.

Despite the graininess of the photo, there’s actually a lot you can see here. The first thing I notice is that this room is gargantuan. That’s got to be an 18-foot ceiling at least, and the chairs and table at the left look like doll house furniture. There’s some very ornate carved woodwork above the bar which may come originally from the Far East. A lot of Seattle’s furnishings did in those days, as it was one of the U.S.’s major ports that communicated directly with trade ports across the Pacific in Japan, Korea and China. The bottles, presumably various herbs and pharmaceuticals as well as food items, stretch in impossibly tall rows. I suspect there’s a second level we’re not seeing or at least some movable stairs like you see in a library. I try not to choose photos for this series that have people in them, but there is a woman behind the counter. Either this photo was staged when the store wasn’t open or it’s a very slow day, as there are no customers.

The soda fountain got its start in the closing years of the 19th century, but evolved from an American tradition of the general store/post office–a kind of one-stop shop where people could get their mail, socialize, buy goods and supplies, and eat or get a drink. Decades earlier a young Abraham Lincoln worked in such a place on the Illinois frontier. This corporate soda fountain is a far cry from that, but there’s a common element there. By 1900 shops like this would have catered largely to young people, probably selling fountain soft drinks, ice cream and perhaps penny candy. You could also probably buy basic medicines and such here and probably some simple food like sandwiches, soup and such. Later in the 20th century most soft drinks came in prepackaged bottles, but drugstores and “lunch counters” remained conjoined until surprisingly late in the century. Although the building in which this soda fountain operated still exists in 2015, it’s now unrecognizable from what it was like in 1900.

This photo is in the public domain.