The lost lingo of those bright boys behind the marble counters
June 8, 2018 9:11 AM   Subscribe

In the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most coveted jobs in bustling diners and drugstores where one might find a soda fountain was that of the soda jerk, or jerker, master of displays and puns (the title of the position itself a play on "soda clerk"). But with increased corporate control, the linguistic concoctions of the soda jerker (paywalled scholarly article, first page preview) largely fizzled up, but Gastro Obscura rounded up some prime slang in The Lost Lingo of New York City’s Soda Jerks. Just don't be a George Eddy, tip the jerk!
posted by filthy light thief (35 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating!
posted by OrangeDisk at 9:28 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


I remember reading a quote from Charlie Chaplin years ago, I can't remember the exact quote, but he talked about how everybody in America did everything with such alacrity, even the soda jerks.

I wondered what he was talking about for a long time until I stumbled on discussions of the show-offy world of soda jerks, who basically did cocktail-style throwing stuff around years before bartenders ever did.

Here is Harold Lloyd with an advanced demonstration.
Here's a modern dude named Uri who is about as good at this as anyone has ever been.
posted by maxsparber at 9:30 AM on June 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


Gerald Warshaver's 1971 "Folklore Forum" article "Schlop Scholarship: A Survey of Folkloristic Studies of Lunchcounter and Soda Jerk Operatives" may also be of interest.
posted by ryanshepard at 9:33 AM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


When I was visiting friends in West Virginia, we ended up stopping in a drugstore in a smallish town one morning. In the back was a perfectly-preserved 1950's soda fountain.
It wasn't open for the day yet, but the store clerk told us it had been in constant operation for fifty years, basically unchanged. It was like the love child of Schwab's and Brigadoon. To this day I regret not going back that afternoon.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:33 AM on June 8, 2018 [10 favorites]


There's an ice cream parlor in Pittsburgh called Klavon's that was a drug store/ice cream shop from the 1920s until 1979 when they locked the door. About twenty years ago it was reopened by a family member and it still basically looks like it did 90 years ago.
posted by octothorpe at 9:56 AM on June 8, 2018 [10 favorites]


Does anyone know the backstory/etymology of 'virtue' as slang for Cherry Coke? (I love it one thousand times and am wondering if it's a reference to something that I'm just not getting)
posted by halation at 10:01 AM on June 8, 2018


Does anyone know the backstory/etymology of 'virtue' as slang for Cherry Coke? (I love it one thousand times and am wondering if it's a reference to something that I'm just not getting)

Cherry = virgin = virtue (I would guess)
posted by briank at 10:07 AM on June 8, 2018 [8 favorites]


...oh. that is slightly less charming but definitely does make sense.
posted by halation at 10:09 AM on June 8, 2018


...oh. that is slightly less charming but definitely does make sense.

A lot of the lingo is, at best, earthy - from the Warshaver article:

Maiden's delight - cherries
Hebrew enemies, a couple of - 2 pork chops
Midget from Harlem - small chocolate soda
Looseners - prunes

posted by ryanshepard at 10:22 AM on June 8, 2018 [6 favorites]


Does anyone think that the increase in popularity of the Freestyle machine may lead to if not a resurgence in the soda jerk culture, a return to the idea that sodas can be subject to recipes like alcoholic drinks?
posted by Selena777 at 10:24 AM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


The Freestyle machines are less "freestyle" than they claim. To get truly creative, you'd need to mix different drinks, which is a rather kludgy process.
/bitter person who was excited about possible permutations
posted by filthy light thief at 10:32 AM on June 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


My 10 year-old daughter routinely uses a Freestyle to mix her own special drinks.

The result is...never good.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:05 AM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


George Ross column (October 1936, pdf):
Who is "George Eddy"? "Probably some guy,"
one of the soda dispensers told me, "who came in
every afternoon a long time ago for a 'twist it,
choke it and make it squeal'—and never dropped
a dime." A "twist it. choke it and make it squeal"
is a plain, ordinary egg malted milk!
posted by pracowity at 11:10 AM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


The "George Eddy" term seems to be unexplained/unknown (at least in the link in the OP), but I am going to make a conjecture that George Eddy might be a clever twist on Goose Egg, another slang term meaning "zero" or "nothing".
posted by briank at 11:13 AM on June 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


I wondered whether it was an allusion to a famous person, but so far I have no clue. There was a murder case in 1909 involving a George Eddy, but how that would evolve into a bad tipper, I have no idea.
posted by pracowity at 11:22 AM on June 8, 2018 [2 favorites]



Al's Waiter

Hey Al, this guy wants his salad tossed.

Al

WHAT?

###

posted by mikelieman at 11:25 AM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


For a deep dive into the history of soda from medicine to a cocaine laced quick-fix to the homogenized mass market syrups of today, I highly recommend "Fix the Pumps" by Darcy O'Neil. The title of the book is itself a soda jerk slang term.
posted by FissionChips at 11:30 AM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


Does anyone think that the increase in popularity of the Freestyle machine may lead to if not a resurgence in the soda jerk culture, a return to the idea that sodas can be subject to recipes like alcoholic drinks?

I don't know about the Freestyle machines influence, but I know that there's a lot of sort of low key or underground non-alcoholic cocktails at my favorite PNW craft cocktail bar where they make almost everything from scratch, including their own tonic water, shrubs, extracts and bitters.

Like, they do seasonal stuff so they right now they have this very cool nettle extract and cocktail based on it.

And soon it will be time for berry shrubs and, my favorite, the grape shrub. The grape shrub is so damn good I will indeed get a non-alcoholic fancy soda-cocktail made with it because I'm one of those sick in the head people that actually really likes grape soda.

So it's not at all weird or uncommon around here for people to be drinking fancy mocktails just for the taste and craft. It seems like 1/3rd of the time when I ask what someone's drinking, it's non-alcoholic and some kind of fancy, flowery mocktail that's basically a big kid's soda.
posted by loquacious at 11:52 AM on June 8, 2018 [6 favorites]


there's a lot of sort of low key or underground non-alcoholic cocktails

Reminds me of childhood Christmases. On Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad would put together a little cocktail cart and invite people to drop in for drinks. Only a few people ever showed up, so on Christmas Day the sister and I would go to town making our own non-alcoholic cocktails out of the mixers and garnishes. Some of them were... regrettable.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:41 PM on June 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


aaaah i'm about to be pedantic but:

And, at a time when the United States was nuts for all things ice-cream, they were at once “consummate showmen, innovators, and freelance linguists of the drugstore stage,” writes Michael Karl Witzel in The American Drive-In. “America’s soda jerk became the pop culture star of the Gilded Age.”

This piece is about a phenomenon that existed from the 1920's to maybe the 1950's...it's always been my understanding that the Gilded Age was the period from say the 1870's to about 1900.

(Is there a term for the time period that this piece actually refers to?)
posted by capnsue at 12:49 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Eighty-Seven and a Half: Girl at table with legs conspicuously crossed or otherwise attractive.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN HOW DO YOU CROSS YOUR LEGS CONSPICUOUSLY AND WHY IS THIS THE NUMERICAL VALUE FOR IT

oh maybe it means you can see her underwear or something, but still WHY 87.5 PLEASE EXPLAIN
posted by capnsue at 12:57 PM on June 8, 2018


Mio nonno, Giuseppe, was a Sicilian immigrant around the time of WWI. He became a prosperous pharmacist and had a store in Cleveland, which, as was customary at the time, included a soda fountain. Growing up, my father learned to run the counter and apply (and, less successfully, remove) medicinal leeches during the Depression. I still have a small, round black-glass-topped table from the fountain part of grandpa's store. My dad, who also became a pharmacist on the GI bill, always referred to himself proudly as a soda jerk. I miss his tin roof sundaes and chocolate phosphates (similar to egg creams, for you New Yorkers).
posted by mondo dentro at 1:05 PM on June 8, 2018 [10 favorites]


I think the Jstor article is free if you sign up.

Here is another link.
posted by craniac at 2:13 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


>WHAT DOES THIS MEAN HOW DO YOU CROSS YOUR LEGS CONSPICUOUSLY AND WHY IS THIS THE NUMERICAL VALUE FOR IT

>oh maybe it means you can see her underwear or something, but still WHY 87.5 PLEASE EXPLAIN


According to the Dictionary of American Regionialisms the origin is unknown.

My guess is that it was a code phrase that was unique enough not to be confused with anything else, but essentially arbitrary.
posted by jeremias at 2:30 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Super awesome. This is my favorite kind of thing to read on Earth.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 2:32 PM on June 8, 2018


WHAT DOES THIS MEAN HOW DO YOU CROSS YOUR LEGS CONSPICUOUSLY AND WHY IS THIS THE NUMERICAL VALUE FOR IT

oh maybe it means you can see her underwear or something, but still WHY 87.5 PLEASE EXPLAIN


Well, there are a bunch of ways to cross one's gams conspicuously. Maybe the 87 1/2 referred to hiking up your skirt over your knees so people can see 87.5% of your legs?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:33 PM on June 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


My guess is that it was a code phrase that was unique enough not to be confused with anything else, but essentially arbitrary.


Also making a guess, perhaps it was related to the old brevity codes used widely in telegrams since the 1800s and still in use in the 20s and 30s. In the 92 Code, the number “88” signified “Love and Kisses” as a common shorthand way to terminate a telegram and was probably well known by most folks. Ham radio operators still use this numerical code to express sentiment.

Referring to a woman as an “87 1/2” may have been a coded way to suggest that she was “almost 88”, that is, very close to being a potential love interest.
posted by darkstar at 4:14 PM on June 8, 2018 [9 favorites]


"WHAT DOES THIS MEAN HOW DO YOU CROSS YOUR LEGS CONSPICUOUSLY "

Probably crossed at the knee. Ladies crossed their legs at the ankle. Crossing your legs at the knee was very suggestive. Not because anything was visible; just because it was unladylike and drew attention to the legs ... especially if you had long ones.

This persists in very formal corners of the world; cotillion will make girls cross their legs at the ankles (and boys not at all); in court I would never cross my legs at the knee, only the ankle. At church if I'm sitting up front (like to do a reading), ankles only, even in pants! And when I was at public meetings on school board where my legs were visible, ankles only, even in pants -- it made me constantly thank God for tables with modesty skirts. (If you're sitting for three dang hours with everyone looking at you, being able to MOVE AROUND is a real blessing.)

Kate Middleton never crosses her legs at the knee. (Nor does the Queen.) In the US it can be a bit of a class tell, but women crossing their legs at the knee in skirts has gotten way, way more common in the last 10 years or so -- you even see female CEOs and top politicians crossing their legs at the knee at photo calls (although typically not for portraits) -- so it's not as big a tell as it used to be.

There's a funny scene in the Princess Diaries where Julie Andrews teaches Anne Hathaway how to do it properly.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:03 PM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


Ladies crossed their legs at the ankle. Crossing your legs at the knee was very suggestive. Not because anything was visible; just because it was unladylike and drew attention to the legs ... especially if you had long ones.

This persists in very formal corners of the world; cotillion will make girls cross their legs at the ankles


Yes, this was drummed into us in parochial school. And our skirts had to be some ridiculous number of inches below the knee, too, so we could have been riding unicycles under there and nobody would have noticed, let alone flashing knee while crossing our legs.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:33 PM on June 8, 2018 [3 favorites]


the number “88” signified “Love and Kisses”

Times have changed and not in a good way.
posted by Daily Alice at 6:27 PM on June 8, 2018 [8 favorites]


Referring to a woman as an “87 1/2” may have been a coded way to suggest that she was “almost 88”, that is, very close to being a potential love interest.

And when talking about such things as skirt length and crossed legs, the implication possibly being that you could see almost everything in that department.
posted by pracowity at 12:26 AM on June 9, 2018 [1 favorite]


And when talking about such things as skirt length and crossed legs, the implication possibly being that you could see almost everything in that department.

This has me wondering if the inspiring lingo might be "86'd" instead of "88" -- in that 87.5 is "almost 86'd"
posted by halation at 8:44 AM on June 9, 2018


Is “87 1/2” not all-but-transparently a kind of emoji for a curvaceous, nay bosomy woman with her legs crossed at some diagonalistic, not particularly discreet angle?
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:23 AM on June 10, 2018


(Faaaantastic link, BTW, and thanks.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 5:25 AM on June 10, 2018


That Atlas Obscura links to a NY TimesMachine article that led me on quite a rabbit hole:
Quadruplet Mother Wed Ex-Sergeant William ('Red') Thompson, who was recently divorced by his wife, to-day wedded the mother of his quadruplets, Norah Carpenter, of Heaner, Derbyshire, England.
posted by apricot at 11:36 AM on June 11, 2018 [1 favorite]


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