A soda jerk (or soda jerker) is a person—typically a youth—who operates the soda fountain in a drugstore, often for the purpose of preparing and serving soda drinks and ice cream sodas. This was made by putting flavored syrup into a specially designed tall glass and adding carbonated water. One or two scoops of ice cream, or occasionally malt powder, could be added. The result was served with a long-handled spoon, most commonly known as a "soda spoon", and drinking straws.
The term soda jerk was a pun on soda clerk, the formal job title of the drugstore assistants who operated soda fountains. It was inspired by the "jerking" action the server would use to swing the soda fountain handle back and forth when adding the soda water. The soda fountain spigot itself typically was a sturdy, shiny fixture on the end of a pipe or other similar structure protruding above the counter, curving towards where the glasses would be filled. All of the drinks were made with unflavored carbonated water. Consequently, the tap handle was large, as the soda jerker would use it frequently. This made the mixing of drinks a center of activity at the soda fountain.
The practice of operating a soda fountain in a drugstore reached its peak popularity in the 1940s but was popular from the '20s through the '50s. The position was coveted, and was commonly only awarded after protracted menial labor in the store. Soda jerking was dominated by popular young men with loud personalities and good people skills because of the popular environment and "cool" association. These boys who worked at the shops were expected to serve the drinks and also socialize and entertain the guests.
The proliferation of ice cream parlors declined as drive-ins and walk-up fast food stands grew in popularity, and grill and fry cooks replaced soda jerks. Some modern theme diners are styled after establishments in the 1950s and include a soda jerk, along with retro jukeboxes and booth seating.
Generally, soda jerks wore iconic white paper or cloth caps called "soda jerk caps", button-up shirts with a bow tie and an apron as their uniform.
Soda jerks were known for having their own lingo for how their drinks were made. They created nicknames for different drinks. For example, they called a glass of milk "baby" and a strawberry milkshake "in the hay". They also had lingo to express how they wanted their drink to be served. Coffee being called "draw one" would be served strong if called "draw one from the south". If a drink was ordered with extra ice it was "heavy on the hail".
Java, slang for coffee, is now in the name of many coffee shops like Java Coffee and Tea Co., Java! Java! Coffee, and Java Joe's. Even Java computer programing has a cup of coffee as its logo.
Concrete is another term from soda jerk lingo that is still used. Concrete's definition remains a super thick milkshake or custard. Today, a company known for using the term is Culver's, because of their Concrete Mixers.
Hilltown Lunch Counter was created in 1937 by Don McCafferty and is a family run business and its re-creation is now run by his grandson, Kevin McCafferty.