What’s On The Menu: Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room

In 1928, the original location of The Waldorf Astoria on Fifth Avenue was sold to the Bethlehem Engineering Corporation. Over the next few years, it was demolished to make way for what would become The Empire State Building. Construction began on March 17, 1930, and it would eventually become the first hundred story building in the world. It was built incredibly quickly at a rate of four and a half stories per week; construction was completed in one year and forty-five days. On May 1, 1931, President Hoover officially turned the lights on, opening the building for the first time. This enticing place quickly became one of the most popular tourist attractions in New York City; people could pay ten cents to peer through a telescope at the entirety of New York. Within six months, the building had made over 3,000 dollars, mostly in nickels, dimes, and quarters, a modern amount of $56,995.621

Ahmad, D. A. (n.d.). Construction of the Empire State Building [Photograph]. History.com. https://www.history.com/news/10-surprising-facts-about-the-empire -state-building

The Empire State Observatory has two locations; either on the eighty-sixth floor, the spot of the original observatory, and the reimagined hundred-and-second floor observatory2. However, in the The eighty-sixth floor housed the lone observatory. Located on the eastern side of that floor was the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room. It was marketed as “the world’s loftiest tearoom and soda fountain”3.  In this tearoom and fountain, someone who had purchased a ticket to the observatory could find a fully stocked refreshment bar with sandwiches, an extensive array of soda, and ice cream sundaes. To enter the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room, even if they had purchased a ticket to the observatory, one would have to pay an additional one dollar fee before purchasing their food4. A version of the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room menu has been preserved and is viewable on the New York Public Library’s menu database, entitled “What’s On The Menu.” Although this copy was created in 1933, this version of the menu was likely used from the time the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room opened until 1934.

Empire State Observatory: Menu. (1933). NYPL: What’s On The Menu. http://menus.nypl. org/menu_pages/63097/explore

While the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room sold sandwiches, soups, and salads, its primary purpose was to sell sodas and ice cream sundaes. The fountain and tearoom’s aluminum soda fountain was built by the building’s architects, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon5.  They became best known for their architectural designs of the Empire State Building and garnered international recognition until the great depression, when their plans were forced to become more modest6. Because the same architects built the fountain, it matched the rest of the building’s designs. It was long and rectangular but with curved ends and stood in front of a colored map of the Northern part of New York City. The Empire State Building stood at ground zero for the map, so the map a person viewed was also what they saw when they looked outside the Observatory deck across the eighty-sixth floor7

Soda fountains within the United States were popular from the early twentieth century until the 1960s. The first soda fountain was patented in 1819 to a physician who invented a barrel-shaped fountain with a pump and spigot to dispense carbonated water. It was meant to be hidden away under a counter or table. The first actual soda fountain was created in Massachusetts in 1863 by Gustavus D. Dows, who would eventually patent the first marble soda fountain and ice shaver. In 1903, the soda fountain style with which most people associate the name was patented by Edwin Haeusser Heisinger in New York City. This style was one with front-service and made it much easier to own and operate a soda-centered business8. The list of sodas on the menu is extensive, including sodas still sold today like orange soda, Canada Dry, and Coca Cola along with sodas seen less often, like pineapple soda, lemon soda, and chocolate soda. 

Soda fountain culture during the late 1920s and 1930s was an essential aspect of the Great Depression and prohibition. They served as meeting places for people of all ages and were most marketable during prohibition since people could not legally drink alcohol and needed places to sit and enjoy a beverage. They were a specifically American experience due to the severity of the Great Depression. People needed an inexpensive outlet for socialization due to many losing their jobs making them unable to afford restaurants and other dining establishments. During the Great Depression, soda fountains could be found on most streets in major cities and even in smaller towns, there was at least one. This culture led to the development of soda’s mass popularity and its language slang. Phrases such as “Adam and Eve on a raft ‘and wreck ’em.” and  “brown derby” became popular. The first meaning scrambled eggs, and the second being a homemade chocolate doughnut with a scoop of chocolate ice cream and topped with chocolate syrup or hot fudge. Some of this terminology was racially motivated, which is unsurprising because soda fountain culture was primarily white. While some employees may have been people of color, many soda fountains were inside pharmacies, which were primarily white.9

[Photograph]. (n.d.). Heywood-Wakefield. https://www.heywoodwakefield.com/soda- fountain-mid-century-icon/

Soda itself has existed in some format since the eighteenth century, when carbonation techniques began being used. The term “soda water” was coined in 1798 and has been a general term used to refer to carbonated drinks10. The history of some of these sodas is disputed or unknown, chocolate soda in particular. There are two main stories; the first is about a Mr. Green from Philadelphia, and the other, a story about a man originally from Chicago who relocated to Detroit after the Great Chicago Fire. Both stories have dates in the 1870s, meaning chocolate soda was created in the mid-to-late nineteenth century10. The vanilla soda on the menu most likely refers to cream soda since cream soda is prepared and flavored with vanilla. Sodas like pineapple, raspberry, strawberry, lemon, and orange would have been made with soda water mixed with flavored syrups made out of fruits11

The three sodas currently popular on this menu are root beer, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi-Cola. In 1876, pharmacist Charles Elmer Hires invented modern root beer after creating a new form of tea he eventually turned into a carbonated drink. Although Hires and his family eventually sold the first modern bottled root beer, its origins date back to pre-colonial times in North America when Indigenous tribes created beverages with sassafras. The first major company to produce root beer was the Barq’s Brothers Bottling Company located in New Orleans in 1898. The other famous root beer brand was formed when two men, named Roy Allen and Frank Wright, purchased a root beer recipe in 1919. Thet formed A&W root beer, which became trademarked in 1924 after Allen bought Wright out12. Although the Coca-Cola company disputes the history of cocaine within their drink, most evidence shows, in 1886, Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia, developed a syrup made with coca leaf extract and caffeine from the kola nut and until 1905, extracts of cocaine13. Pharmacist Caleb Bradham of North Carolina formulated Pepsi-Cola in 1893; he originally called it Brad’s Drink, but he chose to change the name to make it more marketable14

While the soda fountain was one of the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room’s main draws, it was also known for its ice cream sundaes. The menu has eight options, each costing 25¢. The options included: cherry, raspberry, strawberry, pineapple, chocolate marshmallow, chocolate nut, the Governors’ choice, and plain ice cream. There are three possible stories of the creation of the ice cream sundae. The first takes place in Illinois after laws were passed saying soda water could not be sold on Sundays. The local soda fountains began selling cream sodas without the soda water, serving ice cream with syrup on top. The second story says that in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners of Wisconsin, when a customer asked for ice cream with soda syrup on top, and he then began selling it on the menu. The last story contends in 1893 drug store owner Chester Platt prepared a bowl of ice cream with cherry syrup on top for a Reverend after a church service and named it the “Cherry Sunday” due to the day on which he created it; the spelling was eventually changed, although it is not known when15. Platt’s story is considered the most believable due to some primary evidence, but both Wisconsin and Illinois continue to claim the sundae’s heritage16. At the time of this menu’s usage, the governor of New York was Herbert H. Lehman; his personal ice cream preferences are not known, so what the Governors’ choice consists of is unknown. 

[Photograph]. (n.d.-b). RoadsideAmerica.Com. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/11967

Ice cream’s history within the United States of America begins when the history of the nation begins. From colonial times, ice houses on wealthier pieces of land were used to make elementary forms of ice cream; if people were wealthy, they would serve it with fruit, but it was commonly eaten alone. An Italian immigrant established the first ice cream shop in America in New York in 1770. In a diary entry from President George Washington, he mentions purchasing a “cream machine for ice” for Mount Vernon. He served it at political events, and this continued to be a tradition in the White House with Thomas Jefferson, who hired a French chef who prepared fresh ice cream often. 

An African-American man named Augustus Jackson is credited with creating the modern manufacturing method of ice cream. In 1832, he developed multiple ice cream recipes where the ice was mixed with salt to lower and control the ingredients’ temperature. Jackson was a chef within the White House and eventually chose to leave to pursue ice cream making. He moved to Philadelphia and began to sell his recipes for ice cream, quickly becoming one of the city’s wealthiest men. Unfortunately, Jackson never patented his ice cream production method, most likely due to how difficult it was to receive a patent as a person of color17. The first person of color to receive a patent was in 1821, eleven years before Jackson’s rise to popularity. At this time, patents were only available to people who had never been enslaved. It is unknown whether Jackson was a formerly enslaved person, but this could have led to this lack of a patent. 

In 1843, female inventor Nancy M. Johnson patented the first hand-cranked ice cream freezer. This style of small ice cream freezer is still in use today. The first wholesale ice cream business in the United States was opened in 1851 by milk distributor Jacob Fussell, who was looking for a way to sell more at a faster rate. Because he was a milk distributor, he could sell his ice cream for less than half the price of any small ice cream business. He opened his own ice houses and Baltimore-based ice cream factories to control every step of the production. He installed large versions of Nancy M. Johnson’s ice cream crank-based machines and has become known as the father of the American ice cream industry. At the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the United States’ first World Fair to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, celebrated the creations of different types of ice cream and offered ordinary people the opportunity to taste different types of ice cream they might not otherwise have had18.  

 Tufts Soda Fountain. (2012, January 12). [Photograph]. Ctpost.com. https://www.ctpost.com/ne ws/article/World-Fairs-celebrated-in-new-multi-media-2490096.php#photo-2011087

The first course in ice cream making was at Pennsylvania State College in 1892, and by 1901 Iowa State College had developed a course. In the twentieth century, ice cream’s popularity in the United States multiplied. It even became a propaganda tool during the first World War; the Germans used its popularity in the United States as a criticism, heightening its demand. Immigrants at Ellis Island were given ice cream as an introduction to American culture, although many believed it was frozen butter, because it was something they would not have previously experienced. The invention of the continuous process freezer by Clarence Vogt in 1926 led to mass production which revolutionized the industry19.

The Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room was an iconic part of visiting the Empire State Building until its closure and replacement with a full-sized bar at some point in the 1940s. It was such a popular destination for tourists, the menu is listed, “If Desirous of Mailing This Menu to a Friend, Ask Cashier For a Stamped Envelope.” Tourists would request an envelope and mail the menu to friends and family back in their hometown to prove they had visited the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room. 

When Prohibition was repealed in December 1933, The Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room rapidly underwent a series of changes. The soda fountain counter was modified, and a portion of it was converted into a bar. The former Governor of New York, Al Smith, became president of the Empire State Corporation after losing the 1928 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was anti-Prohibition, and when the Empire State Observatory Fountain and Tea Room was built, he purposely encouraged the architects to design the Soda Fountain like a bar, so the construction was incredibly quick. This version of the menu was created before the end of Prohibition, so to continue to use these menus, a stamp was used to add “Bottle Beer 20¢” to the menu. They also had  full bar service, including drinks like Martinis, Manhattans, and a special Empire State drink, made with Amstel bitters, orange bitters, French vermouth, Scotch whiskey, and dry gin. It became referred to as “The world’s highest bar,” and people flocked to the Empire State Building as soon as it was reopened in the spring of 193420.


  1. “History.” History | Empire State Building, The Empire State Building, http://www.esbnyc.com /about history. 
  2. “Observatories & Exhibits.” NYC Observatories & Exhibits | Empire State Building, The Empire State Building, http://www.esbnyc.com/visit/observatories-exhibits. 
  3. Tauranac, John. The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark. Germany, Cornell University Press, 2014.
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Bashir, Catherine W. “Shreve and Lamb (1924-1970s).” North Carolina Architects and Builders – A Biographical Dictionary, North Carolina State University, 2009, ncarchitects.lib. ncsu.edu/ people/P000414. 
  7. Tauranac, John. “The Empire State Building”
  8. Bellis, Mary. “The Evolution of the Soda Fountain and the Soft Drink Industry.” ThoughtCo, 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-soda-fountain-1992432. 
  9. Bentley, Harold W. “Linguistic Concoctions of the Soda Jerker.” American Speech, vol. 11, no. 1, 1936, pp. 37–45. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/452683. Accessed 20 Nov. 2020.
  10. Bellis, Mary. “How Did Soda Shift From a Health Drink to a Health Crisis?” ThoughtCo, DotDash Publishing, 9 July 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/introduction-to-soda-pop-1992433.
  11. Kass, John. “Chocolate Soda’s Origins Are Open To Sweet Debate.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 23 May 2019, http://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/  ct-kass-met-0824-20140823 -column.html. 
  12. Bellis, Mary. “The History of Root Beer.” ThoughtCo, DotDash Publishing, 9 Aug. 2019, http://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-root-beer-1992386. 
  13. Bellis, Mary. “The History of Coca-Cola.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/hi story-of-coca-cola-1991477.
  14. Bellis, Mary. “The History of Pepsi Cola.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/ history-of-pepsi-cola-1991656.
  15. Bellis, Mary. “History of the Ice Cream Sundae.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-ice-cream-sundae-1991763.
  16. Stradley, Linda. History of Ice Cream Sundae. What’s Cooking America, 5 Jan. 2017, whatscookingamerica.net/History/IceCream/Sundae.htm. 
  17. Stradley, Linda. Legends and Myths of Ices and Ice Cream History. What’s Cooking America, 5 Jan. 2017, whatscookingamerica.net/History/IceCream/IceCreamHistory.htm. 
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Tauranac, John. “The Empire State Building”

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