Paper Boys and Soda Jerks

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There was a time when the "paper boy" was a standard feature of every neighborhood in America. He would make his rounds 7 days a week delivering newspapers to his customers. He bought the papers at a discount from the publisher and charged a slightly higher price ... and made a profit in the bargain. The paper boy also learned a work ethic that was priceless in later life.

Three of us --- Joe Sharpless, Jay Kendig, and I --- each had paper routes. We delivered the Washington Post ... a morning newspaper. I also delivered the Times-Herald in the same general area. Between the two newspapers, I had more than 200 customers. It was a very efficient operation. I'd pack my bicycle basket with both papers and be on my way. If a household didn't subscribe to the Post it was a safe bet they took the Times-Herald, instead. The routes extended for several blocks but on a bike it didn't take long to get the job done.

I don't remember anymore how much money I made but it was not bad for a young man. I carried those papers until my senior year in high school and saved most of the money for college. When I was old enough to drive, I also had money to buy my first car ... a used 1939 Ford coupe. In addition, during the summer, I worked as a soda-jerk at a couple of drug stores.

Being a paperboy had a fringe benefit. The papers, especially the Post, were aggressively building circulation with prizes to paperboys who signed up the most new customers. Because our neighborhood was growing rapidly, that wasn't hard to do. Jay Kendig and I hit on a great plan. Jay had a motor scooter. He and I would head off to new housing and apartment developments and sign up as many customers as possible. On the motor scooter we could cover a lot of ground. We'd split the new customers 50/50. The prizes varied ... such things as wristwatches ... trips to Atlantic City ... and tickets to see games at Griffith Stadium, home of the old Washington Senators. We saw a lot of major league baseball in those years.

The paperboy has vanished from the American scene. Now-adays, men or women with trucks deliver the paper. And the paper routes aren't as concentrated either. In 1946, nearly every home on the block took a newspaper. Today, many people are satisfied to get their news from TV and don't take a paper at all. In Washington, two newspapers I delivered as a kid, the Evening Star and the TimesHerald no longer exist. The Daily News, an afternoon tabloid, is gone as well.

Earlier, I mentioned I worked as a soda jerk. That's another disappearing breed although the fast food industry --- non-existent in the 1940's --- probably takes up the slack in the job market.

Most drug stores had a soda fountain. Although their specialty would be ice cream dishes and fountain-dispensed soft drinks, the soda fountain usually offered a simple menu of breakfasts and luncheon dishes, too. A busy shopper or office worker could get a Coke and a BLT sandwich or hamburger. Seating was at a counter. And at most busy soda fountains, it was fast food. People who had just an hour for lunch didn't dally long after they finished their meal.

My first summer soda fountain job was at the People's Drug Store in Silver Spring. We were in a small shopping center just around the corner from the Silver Theatre. The lunch hour was very busy. Things slowed down about 1:30 in the afternoon. Just enough time to get organized for the movie matinee crowd. When the afternoon picture show ended around 3:30, it seemed like everyone in Silver Spring would descend on the place at once ... all eager for a chocolate-malted milkshake, ice cream sundae, banana split or the like.

The lunch rush was a chore. The movie rush, on the other hand, was fun. Making all those ice cream goodies fast but attractive had an element of creativity to it. Most dishes were served in fancy glassware and topped with sweet syrups, crushed nuts, whipped cream and a cherry. They looked good and tasted good.

Carolyn and I were in Jackson, Wyoming on a trip several years ago and ran across a place that claimed to have "the last soda fountain in America". That's probably not true although it was a very fine soda fountain. We each had some wonderful ice cream concoction. For a few minutes, I was back in the drug store and it was 1947 again. Only I wasn't the soda jerk ... I was the customer.

If you ever get to Atlanta, go to the Coca-Cola Museum. On the second floor, they've set up an actual old-time soda fountain complete with demonstrations of what the soda jerk did. They will even tell you why a soda jerk is called a "soda jerk."