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Soda Jerk Wanted

Updated: 1 hour ago

I can’t believe my eyes. It’s the ad for the job I’ve been waiting a lifetime for: SODA JERK WANTED. The St. Louis Union Station Soda Fountain has an ad for Jerks Wanted. If I was there, I’d walk right in and take that sign out of the store window. 

No one has worked as a soda jerk since Nixon was president, and those were the twilight years. I recently saw a clip from Abbott and Costello’s Who Done It?  The comedy duo portrayed soda jerks in this 1942 film that no one under 60 has seen, working a job few alive have ever worked. 

The plot revolves around their true desire to write radio mysteries, but they work as soda jerks by day. We see the good and bad sides of jerk life with a healthy dose of jerk lingo. 

Who Done It?
Lou Costello and Bud Abbott

Jerk History

At any given time during the 1930s and 40s, as many as half a million were employed as soda jerks in the United States. After Prohibition came into effect in 1920, the soda fountain became the closest thing to the neighborhood bar. Guess who was the bartender?

What is a soda jerk? Here is the definition from Merriam-Webster: a person who dispenses carbonated drinks and ice cream at a soda fountain. Also called a soda jerker. A soda jerk doesn’t serve alcohol, so right off, their life expectancy is greater than that of a bartender. 

Jerk history goes back to the 1850s, according to Pharmacy Times, when soda fountains were put into place at pharmacies to mix more palatable concoctions of medications. Shakes consisted of carbonated water, eggs and flavored milk. Of course, cocaine and other opiates were on the menu. The only things you couldn't add were prostitutes and weapons.

Soda Jerk Wanted

Jerk Vernacular

Part of the allure and legend of soda jerks is the language they used and invented, particularly in New York. It wasn’t enough to acknowledge your order; the best of them put on a show.

In 1936, Columbia University English professor Harold W. Bently conducted an extensive study into soda jerk lingo. His article was titled Linguistic Concoctions of the Soda Jerker.

He describes a group of British scholars that he knew. Visiting New York City, they were far more interested in listening to soda jerk lingo than seeing the city. Bentley’s fascination cites soda jerk expressions such as “Twist it, choke it and make it cackle,” meaning a chocolate malted milk with egg. “Shake one in the hay” was a strawberry milkshake, and if you heard “Ninety-nine,” the jerk was referring to his boss.

soda jerker

Jerk Glossary

Hamilton Beach has a fun nostalgia page with common soda jerk terms for ingredients and styles of fountain products. Here are a few from the jerk glossary:

  • Black (cola)

  • Brown (root beer)

  • Concrete (a milkshake so thick it can be turned upside down and not drip)

  • Cow juice (milk)

  • Draw one (coffee)

  • Draw one from the south (strong coffee)

  • Dust (malted milk powder)

  • Egg Cream (a chocolate soda with a dash of milk)

  • Floater (a glass of malted milk with a scoop of ice cream)

  • Freak (orange flavored soda)

  • Fuzzy (peaches)

  • Gravel (nuts)

  • Hang One (Coca-Cola®)

  • Heavy on the Hail (extra ice)

  • Hot cha (hot chocolate)

  • In the hay (strawberry milkshake)

  • Mud (chocolate ice cream)

  • Natural (7-Up®)

  • One on the country (yogurt or buttermilk)

  • Patch (strawberries)

  • Salties (peanuts)

  • Sand (sugar)

  • Shake one (make a milk shake)

  • Snowball (scoop of vanilla ice cream)

  • Spit on it (raspberries on top)

  • Squeeze one (orange juice)

  • Triple Threat (three scoops of ice cream)

  • White cow (vanilla milkshake)

  • Winter (whipped cream)

  • Yip (an ice cream soda blended in a drink mixer).

jerk history

Soda Jerk Wanted

From what I’ve seen in the movies, this is how I imagine a soda jerk addressing a male customer with glasses.

“What can I getcha for, Ace? How about an egg cream for the egg head?”

How would the jerk speak to a female customer?

“Hey cookie,” he says as he puts an elbow on the counter, uncomfortably close. “How can I bring a smile to that pretty mug?”

Jerks were overwhelmingly male, young, and excellent multitaskers. They were unmistakable in their white uniforms and ice cream parlor hats. A tie and colorful apron might round out the attire. They would deal directly with the customer or sometimes via a waitress. Either way, the fun of a soda fountain was watching and listening to the soda jerk.

soda jerk history

What’s Buzzin’ Cousin'?

Each soda fountain had a bible of recipes that the jerk had to know by heart. If I saw that the above ingredients were available, I’d crave a thick shake with root beer, vanilla ice cream, a shot of strong coffee, whipped cream, raspberries, nuts and malted milk powder on top.

How would my order sound?

"Okay, wisenheimer, shake me a concrete floater with a snowball and a shot o’ brown. Gimme some winter, dust and gravel; draw me one from the south and spit on it.” 

“You got it in one-two skidoo, chum!” he might respond.

You can’t order that from the app.

Imagine the slang for a 19th Century soda jerk:

“Ahoy Ebenezer. Please indulge me in a fizzled, hen-pecked brownish cow with a rousing dollop of white lightning.”

soda jerk wanted

Crying on the Inside Kind of Jerks?

It must have been fun to visit a soda fountain or department store counter back in the day. The photos and videos of the patrons have a refreshing quality about them. You see lots of smiles and people talking to each other. The barriers between the booths are shoulder level instead of head level like today. And, of course, no one has their face buried in an electronic device.

I can only wonder if the mood at a soda fountain in the late 40s or 50s was as happy as it appears. It depends on the person, but everyone’s family was affected by the wars and the times. I imagine many of those smiling faces were masking deep pain.

The jerks themselves, like anyone serving the public today, had to put on a happy face for the job. Looking at the photos, many appear to be in their 30s or 40s but were likely much younger, and veterans of one war or another.

soda jerk history

Some Things Will Never Change

The name soda jerk conjures a definitive image every time I hear it: fountain, ice cream, white uniform, paper hat, smiling face, happy kid. 

I sometimes wonder if soda fountains, department store counters, and that certain type of comfort even existed. I never saw it for myself, so it’s like Babe Ruth, trolley cars, and sleigh rides. I’m sure they were there, but it’s all a technicolor memory. 

To even try to replicate the soda fountain or play the jerk today is to toy with a dream. The image can’t match the memory or the legend. Most importantly, on a positive note, it’s nice to know such simple pleasures are all it took to make people happy. Some things will never change.



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