You probably know people who drink soda pop all day long, and they may even tell you they’re “addicted” to it. You might be one of those people yourself. In the modern age, we can find out all the ingredients in what we drink, and make our decisions accordingly. We all know those ingredients are not necessarily good for us. But once upon a time, soda pop was billed as a health tonic and there were often things in there that were far worse than sugar and carbonated water. Tristan Donovan, the author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, tells us about early soda drinks.
Besides booze, sodas of the 19th century also incorporated drugs with much stronger side effects, including ingredients now known as narcotics. Prior to the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906, there were few legal restrictions on what could be put into soda-fountain beverages. Many customers came to soda fountains early in the morning to get a refreshing and “healthy” beverage to start their day off right: Terms like “bracer” and “pick-me-up” referred to the physical and mental stimulation sodas could provide, whether from caffeine or other addictive substances.
Pharmacists were soon making soda mixtures with stronger drugs known as “nervines,” a category that included strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin, and a new miracle compound called cocaine, which was first isolated in 1855. “Cocaine was a wonder drug at the time when it was first discovered,” Donovan explains. “It was seen as this marvelous medicine that could do you no harm. Ingredients like cocaine or kola nuts or phosphoric acid were all viewed as something that really gave you an edge.
“Recipes I’ve seen suggest it was about 0.01 grams of cocaine used in fountain sodas. That’s about a tenth of a line of coke,” he says. “It’s hard to be sure, but I don’t think it would’ve given people a massive high. It would definitely be enough to have some kind of effect, probably stronger than coffee.” While the dosages were small, they were certainly habit-forming, and soda fountains stood to profit from such consistent customers.
That’s just part of the history of soda. How did they develop fizzy water in the first place? How did we eventually lose the drugs? And why did some sodas stick around while others faded? Learn the history of soda at Collectors Weekly.