Another First in Lowell History: The Soda Fountain

Lowell may have given us telephone numbers, Moxie, and even Bette Davis. Lesser known, however, is Lowell’s role in the soda fountain. Whether you call it pop, tonic, soda, or just plain Coke, the soda fountain owes its modern form to one Gustavus D. Dows who ran a drugstore with his brother at 213 Central Street in Lowell in the mid-1850s.

How Dows Made History with His Soda Fountain

The story goes that Dows, the youngest of a 21-child family in nearby Billerica, spent his days serving shaved ice lemonade, the era’s hottest summer beverage, to his customers who wandered in from their jobs toiling in Lowell’s textile mills. They wanted their lemonade cold so Dows would pull his block of ice from the ice box each time and set to shaving it, while the growing line of customers would yarn on about the issues of the day with him and each other.

It took Dows a long time and a lot of work to get the ice using his hand planer.

Dows spent his nights trying to come with a better way to make his shaved ice drinks. In 1855, he got there – inventing a dispenser that shaved ice and then automatically mixed it with syrup and cream.

Soda Shop History: O'Connor's Soda Shop, Sound View, Conn.
Decades later, Dow’s soda fountain invention played a huge role in the soda shops of the 1950s. (Image Courtesy of Boston Public Library Flickr Stream)

He encased his invention in ornate Italian marble, and called his drink an ‘ice cream soda.”

His customers kept coming in from the mills, and began raving more about his ice cream sodas than politics or their jobs. Dows knew he had something.

He soon patented his invention and moved to Boston’s Washington Street. Business boomed. Not only did he sell more and more ice cream sodas, but he also sold his marble soda fountains too … for $225 each. To put that in perspective, keep in mind that the average carpenter made $1.70 a day in 1860.

Dows – Inventor of Ice Cream Soda and Bottled Ginger Ale

A few years later, while bringing his invention to Europe, he was introduced to carbonated ginger ale and was the first to bring bottled ginger ale to the US in 1861. Today, though, Gustavus Dows is best remembered as the man who brought us ice cream soda.

He also lives on through Dows Soda Fountain of Lowell’s Mill No. 5, which breathed fresh life into his memory in the same downtown where Dows started his business some 160 years before.


3 thoughts on “Another First in Lowell History: The Soda Fountain

  1. I’ve done A LOT of research on soda fountains and related topics and did not know this! How interesting! I also will have to check out the soda fountain that is now in Lowell. I think the art of making great ice cream sodas has been dying out. (Luckily, I have worked out a formula that works for me, so I’m not ultra-desperate!)

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