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The only visitor unwelcome in the Soda Museum is an earthquake.
The only visitor unwelcome in the Soda Museum is an earthquake.

The Soda Museum

Field review by the editors.

St. Charles, Missouri

Courage. Not a word normally associated with a soda museum, but it may apply to the one in St Charles, Missouri.

Thousands of artifacts pack the museum's main floor.
Thousands of artifacts pack the museum's main floor.

The courage is shown by museum founder Tom Smith Jr., who told us that since he was 15 years old -- roughly 40 years ago -- he had wanted to open a soda museum in his hometown -- even though St. Charles is near one of the most active earthquake zones in North America, and the museum -- which opened in December 2023 -- is filled with thousands of rare glass soda bottles. Years ago, when the collection was smaller and still private, Tom said that he would take his bottles down from their shelves whenever an earthquake was predicted. Now it's too late, and the bottles are too numerous, and Tom is sharing his soda passion with the public, defying the odds.

Tom's first soda collectable: a 1937 serving tray.
Tom's first soda collectable: a 1937 serving tray.

The Soda Museum occupies three floors of an old J.C. Penney store, in a building that dates to 1896. Some of Tom's soda artifacts are even older than that. "There's considerably more stuff in my collection that I could display," he told us. "Tens of thousands of items. I'm trying to get up to 50 percent before I run out of room."

Tom told us that "about 40,000" brands of soda have existed in the U.S.A., which seemed like an overwhelming subject for a collector. Wouldn't it have been easier to just focus on one brand? "I never specialized," said Tom. "I need variety."

A casual look around the Soda Museum reveals a large number of Coca-Cola items. Tom explained that this was because Coke advertised more than any other soda -- so much that other sodas took advantage of it. The museum has several displays showing how now-forgotten brands -- such as "Koca Nola" and "Coak" -- copied Coca-Cola's logo and bottle design. Some even stole Coke's vending machines, painting over them with their own logos. Tom has several among the 440 machines in his collection. "It was cheaper than manufacturing one of your own," he said.

Another machine that caught our attention dated back to the 1920s: essentially just a big box of ice water surrounding a tube filled with bottled soda that stretched through the middle. A customer would buy a warm bottle of soda, push it into a hole in one side of the machine, and out the other side would pop a cold one. This simple bad-in-one-end, good-out-the-other-end method is the way the X-10 Reactor later enriched pellets of uranium for the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Soda was sold from vending machines even before there was electric refrigeration.
Soda was sold from vending machines even before there was electric refrigeration.

Short-lived 1980s partners: New Coke and Max Headroom.
Short-lived 1980s partners: New Coke and Max Headroom.

One wall of the museum is lined with dozens of different Coca-Cola serving trays, most of them featuring artwork of attractive young women. Among them is the first soda item acquired by Tom, when he was 10 years old, of a woman in a yellow swimsuit running on a beach with a Coke in each hand. It was made in 1937. "Why she needed two Cokes is beyond me," Tom said. Another section of the museum features examples of the soda advertising of World War II. Tom speculated that the industry worked overtime to identify itself with the troops as a way to exempt itself from wartime sugar rationing.

Hard-to-pronounce Mit-Che was a Coca-Cola copycat.
Hard-to-pronounce Mit-Che was a Coca-Cola copycat.

In addition to the multiple bottles, trays, and vending machines, the museum has soda jugs, coolers, wooden tubs, syrup cans, crates, clocks, toys, neon signs, the world's first six-pack carrier, and an entire display case filled with Max Headroom swag from the mid-1980s, when he was a Coca-Cola spokesman. "It didn't last long," said Tom, "and neither did Max." Visitors will see brands that they'll recognize -- Dr Pepper, 7up, Pepsi, Sprite, etc. -- and many more that they probably won't, such as Teem, Patio, Devil Shake, Rio, White Cap, Sunburst, Goldenmoon, Five-O, Squirt, Like, Dr. Swett's Root Beer ("Rich in Dextrose"), Pureoxia Ginger Ale, and Celery Cola, which Tom said was very popular in the early 1900s.

In the museum basement visitors can purchase and drink a selection of about 100 mostly old soda brands that have recently been resurrected, such as Grapette, Sarsaparilla, and Nehi Orange. Tom described them as "legitimate" sodas, all sweetened with cane sugar. "They're a novelty in that they're hard to find, not that they taste bad," he said. Some of the antique cola bottles on display in the museum still have soda in them, so we asked Tom if he had ever been tempted to drink one. "I wouldn't recommend it," he said, explaining that they were bottled before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which means that one of their ingredients is probably cocaine.

Bottled soda over 100 years old is unsafe to drink.
Bottled soda over 100 years old is unsafe to drink.

Tom said that he's at the museum every day of the week: another example of courage, since he told us that he had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. "It is somewhat ironic that I have a museum dedicated to soft drinks that I can't drink," Tom said. He fondly recalled the taste of Vernor's Ginger Ale and "a butterscotch root beer that I loved."

"I probably overdid it," said Tom of his soda consumption. "Too much of anything is bad for you," although for Tom maybe not when it comes to soft drink memorabilia.

Also see: Dr Pepper Museum | New World of Coca-Cola

The Soda Museum

Address:
126 N. Main St., St. Charles, MO
Directions:
In the city's downtown historic district. I-70 exit 229B. Turn north onto 5th St. Drive one mile. Turn right at the stoplight onto Jefferson St. Drive four blocks. Turn left at the stop sign onto N. Main St. Drive a half-block. You'll see the museum on the right.
Hours:
M-Th 10-6, F-Sa 10-8:30, Su 12-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
636-724-7632
Admission:
Adults $20.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Lewis and Clark and Seaman the DogLewis and Clark and Seaman the Dog, St. Charles, MO - < 1 mi.
Big Butterfly and CaterpillarBig Butterfly and Caterpillar, Chesterfield, MO - 9 mi.
Dan's Emerald ForestDan's Emerald Forest, Overland, MO - 9 mi.
In the region:
Muffler Car Parts Man, St. Louis, MO - 10 mi.

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