Drug Store Antiques: Glass Show Globes and Soda Fountains


A show globe is a glass vessel that is filled with a colored liquid and displayed in an apothecary’s window. The show globes came in a variety of styles, some were free-standing and others suspended from the ceiling.

Show globes served as a symbol of the pharmacy profession, much like the mortar and pestle, they had become the pharmacy’s “barber pole.”

In a time of low literacy, the show globes served to both call attention and to differentiate pharmacists from other businesses.

American Manufacturers - Whitall, Tatum, and Co. in 1904
American Manufacturers - Whitall, Tatum, and Co. in 1904
American Manufacturers - Whitall, Tatum, and Co. in 1904
Shop-front of Baildon & Son, Shandwick Place, Edinburgh, With Show Globes in Front Window. Circa 1915.
This show globe belonged to Otto A. Weihe (1896-1961), an alumnus and instructor of the California College of Pharmacy. It contains the original colored liquid used by Weihe family when the globe was installed in the Modesto, CA pharmacy in 1911. Robert L. Day Collection, MSS 2011-23, UCSF Archives & Special Collections.
Variety of Show Globes
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum Window
Show globes - precursor to the electric neon sign


As intriguing as these show globes are to the eye, so is their origin. The origin of show globes till this day remains a mystery.

One of the oldest legends states that Julius Caesar during his invasion of Ireland needed a marker to help guide his troops. He asked the shopkeeper to illuminate the show globes in the window and in return he would spare his life. Due to the successful outcome, Caesar proclaimed that apothecaries “would be honored by being allowed to use colored show globes to identify their establishment" (Mysterious Show Globes).

One of the most common legends has it that the English alchemist in the 16th century created the colorful chemical concoction within the show globes. In the 18th century when chemical medicines became accepted pharmacists adopted the symbol as there was little to distinguish the two professions.

Another common legend states the color-coded show globes served as a sign to travelers. A red show globe would indicate a warning that travelers should avoid the town due to a plague. A green show globe would indicate a welcome to travelers that all is well.

Show globes are actively being sought out by antique collectors today.


Another staple that became associated with pharmacy were sodas and soda fountains. The rise and decline of the soda fountains reflected changes in America over time. Urbanization, the Prohibition, the Great Depression, technological progression, the decline of Main Street, the Car Culture and the growth of suburbs all played a part in this. Soda fountains first rose in the early 1800s and continued successfully until the 1960s.


In 1778, Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman and English scientist Joseph Priestly invented a method by which they could carbonate water with carbon dioxide. Soda fountain counters had their start in Europe, and were brought to the U.S. in 1806 by a Yale chemistry professor, Benjamin Silliman. He bought the equipment to make soda water and began selling it to the public in New Haven, Connecticut.

Early soda machines required over-sized cranks to manually carbonate water. In the beginning, soda fountains were plane, goose-neck shaped faucets that dispensed unflavored carbonated water which had supposed medical effects.

In 1832, two men helped turn soda drinking into a major business when they began manufacturing soda fountains in the United States. John Matthews of NYC developed a lead-lined chamber in which sulphuric acid and powdered marble were mixed together to generate carbon dioxide. Then the gas was purified and manually mixed into cool water with steady agitation, creating carbonated water. Matthews and John Lippincott of Philadelphia changed the look of soda fountains making them ornate to take advantage of the social aspect they bring to pharmacies. People would go to the local drugstore for a fountain drink to cure or aid some physical ache. Many of the fountain drinks included various drugs that were flavored and effervesced to make them palatable.

Left, the counter at the Clarkson & Mitchell Drugstore in Springfield, Illinois, circa 1905. Via the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Right, an 1894 ad for an ornate fountain produced by Charles Lippincott & Co.

It was estimated in 1877, that New York customers in warm weather were consuming 200,000 glasses of soda water a day. At an average of 7.5-cents a glass, this was earning druggists in NYC $15,000 daily. Charles Alderton a physician who decided to work as a pharmacist invented Dr Pepper in the 1885. In 1886 pharmacist John Pemberton looked for a cure for his morphine addiction invented Coca Cola. In 1866 pharmacist Charles Hires created Root Beer most likely to be an alternative to alcohol. In 1898 pharmacist Caleb Bradham invented Pepsi and he believed his drink aided digestion.

Various brands of sodas were invented by pharmacist during the turn of the 19th century.

With the popularity of non-alcoholic beverages steadily increasing, saloons were realizing their first competitors. One could get an alcoholic drink at a fraction of the bar’s price because there were no taxes on alcohol-based ‘medicine.’Pharmacists were making soda mixtures with stronger drugs known as “nervines,” a category that included cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin, and cocaine.

The company’s first advertisement ran on the patent-medicine page of the Atlanta Journal in 1886 and Coca-Cola was viewed as a health drink, “containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nuts.”

Prior to 1914 every drug was basically “over the counter” so no soda fountain broke any law by selling cocaine derived drinks. That all changed when the “Harrison Act” became law in 1914. The “Harrison Act” banned the use of cocaine and opiates in over-the-counter products.

Narcotics were no longer dispensed without a prescription

By the early 1920’s just about every drugstore had a soda fountain. The prohibition beginning in 1919 created a boom for soda fountains since they filled the social void caused by the closing of bars. Soda fountains became more decorative with marble columns hiding its working parts and reflected the latest trends of the day such as Victorian gingerbread and Art Deco streamline. The soda fountains were an urban phenomenon because its clients lived or worked in walking distance.

Art Deco Soda Fountain
1928 soda fountain by the Liquid Carbonic Company originally stood in a drugstore in Buffalo Center Iowa.It sold new for the price of a luxury sedan and was often referred to as the “Cadillac” of soda fountains because it was so ornate

“The soda fountain is the most valuable, most useful, most profitable, and altogether most beneficial business building feature assimilated by the drugstore in a generation… “ “In the face of present pyramiding taxes and overhead, like wise the increased demand for soft drinks resulting from prohibition, can (one) fail to see which way the wind is blowing… and become a soda fan quick!...The bar is dead, the fountain lives, and soda is king!” - John Somerset wrote in Drug Topics June 1920

After WW2 marble soda fountains become unprofitable and were replaced by stainless-steel bobtail fountains. As Americans bought cars and moved to the suburbs people began to lose interest. Drive-in restaurants become the new social trend along with bottled and carton beverages.

By the 1960s drive-ins and bottles began to replace soda fountains in pharmacies.

Works Cited

Brought to Light. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

"Drug Store Soda Fountain History." Drug Store Soda Fountain History. Soderland Drugstore Museum, n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Funderburg, Anne Cooper. Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular, 2002. Print.

"History of the Soda Fountain." Highland Park Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

"History of the Soda Fountain." Retro Planet. N.p., 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

"Introduction." Introduction: Mysterious Show Globes of the Apothecary Exhibit. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

Oatman-Stanford, Hunter. "Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda Pop." Collectors Weekly. N.p., 10 Apr. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

"Pharmacists Invented Soda." Building Healthy Kids. N.p., 11 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

"Show Globes." Show Globes | College of Pharmacy - University of Arizona. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016.

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