NEW YORK — Teenagers didn’t always communicate by texting on their cell phones. Before those devices were invented, they would head in groups to their nearest drugstore soda fountain, where they would sidle up to the long counter, sit on a red leather bar stool and order a fizzy drink that would be hand-mixed on the spot from seltzer and flavored syrups.
The syrups — made of highly concentrated fruit flavors and 90 percent sugar — came in such varieties as cherry, ginger ale, orange, lime, grape or cherry and were displayed in attractive and colorful counter-top dispensers.
The dispensers were usually round or barrel-shaped, made of porcelain and bore striking advertising text and imagery. Slogans like “Always Drink Cherry Smash” and “Drink Crawford’s Cherry-Fizz/It’s Jake-A Loo” helped drive soda sales in this sweet part of American history. “Mass-produced syrups like Ward’s Orange Crush, Cherry Smash, Orange Julep and Green River became common in the neighborhood drugstore,” says an online narrative written by the Soderland Drug Store Museum.
These antique dispensers conjure nostalgia even for those who weren’t around for the soda-fountain era, and the nicest, all-original examples routinely bring thousands of dollars at auction. In the category of syrup dispensers, a Buckeye Root Beer dispenser tops LiveAuctioneers’ price database with a 2013 winning bid of $95,000.
The ones made by Ward’s are well known and among the most coveted by collectors. Ward’s stable of “Crush” flavors began in 1911 when company founder Clayton J. Howell became partners with chemist Neil C. Ward, inventor of the Orange Crush recipe.
Howell had previously launched a soda called Orange Julep. Syrup used to produce Grape Julep – from the same family as Orange Julep – was pumped from dispensers that had a rich royal-purple hue.
After Orange Crush made its splash and became established in the soft-drink market, along came its companion beverages: Lemon Crush, introduced in 1919; and in the following year, Lime Crush.
Also on many collectors’ wish lists is a Fowler’s Cherry Smash dispenser made a century ago by John E. Fowler’s in Richmond, Virginia. The dispensers had minute color and stylistic differences. A very desirable example of this dispenser has the lettering of “Cherry Smash” in yellow with a green band running around the base of the dispenser. Cherri-Bon syrup dispensers are also quite striking and equally rare.
“Most of the early ceramic ones are at least one hundred years old. They’re from all kinds of companies and have intriguing graphics, including pictures of fruit, on them,” said Ohio collector and dealer Scott Benjamin, who runs a syrup dispenser collecting website. “They are very popular with collectors, but very hard to find. They are not really big things, so they don’t take up a lot of room.”
“Just like any hobby, there are always a few that turn up that we’ve never seen and that we believe are one of a kind,” he said, noting that he has seen some rare dispensers by Jim Dandy’s go for $10,000 to $30,000.
Both Benjamin and auctioneer Kurt Kilgore of Rockabilly Auction Company in Commerce, Georgia, said a big factor in syrup dispensers’ collectibility is the graphics.
“Any of those small round ones with a simple pump have fantastic graphics,” Kilgore said. “They are heavy embossed, they have the company name, sometimes an Indian or the Hires Root Beer guy. The art on them is collectible and colorful. They did a great job of putting these things together and promoting their products with color and graphics.”
Prices have gone up and down over the years, peaking around five years ago, Benjamin said, adding that they are down a bit in today’s market. “But they are still worth good money,” he said, noting that new collectors should educate themselves and buy unrestored original examples.
“Anytime you have restoration, the value is greatly diminished. It depends on the restoration. You might lose ten to twenty percent depending on what was done.”
Kilgore said that nostalgia plays a big role in people wanting to collect syrup dispensers. “People want to go back to the time and things they remember the most. The soda fountain … brings one back to when things were simple.”