Len Davidson led a sing-along in the cold of Saturday afternoon in the Italian Market while cans of 7UP sat wedged into the snow drifts of Carpenter Street.
“Hootin! Hootin! Hootin! Hootin!” he compelled a handful of curious history-loving Philadelphians to join him. “Nothing does it like 7UP, 7UP / Nothing does it like 7UP, 7UP.”
The small crowd gathered on the sidewalk across the street from 816 Carpenter St., a former 7UP bottling plant that is set to be razed and re-purposed into 25 townhouses. Before construction begins, Joel Spivak, an architect by trade and Philadelphia historian by passion, led a send-off to the former bottling location by inviting two historians to share some insight.
Davidson, a resident of the Art Museum area, has South Philly ties thanks to his father. He loves soda and there were many to consume in Philadelphia as a child, way more than there are now. Namely, Frank’s, a brand born of Jacob Frank, a Russian immigrant who made soda on the streets of Philadelphia and specialized in fresh-squeezed lemon soda, stood out.
“Frank’s Orange and Black Cherry Wishniak were all over the city,” Davidson recalled fondly.
And even some flavors made by your favorite soda bottler are extinct.
“Even for the sodas that were made when I was young like Frank’s, I’ve seen advertising signs for Frank’s that show they made flavors before I was born that were not available when I came of soda age,” he added.
Wishniak, a cordial made in Russia and Eastern Europe consisting of sugar, cherries and vodka, however, is a primarily Philadelphian treasure that, after a brief disappearance, is still canned by Honickman Group in Pennsauken, N.J. Workers package mostly PepsiCo products, but for local lovers of that iconic soda, one can still find it when looking hard enough.
7UP was created in St. Louis, Mo., by the Howdy Corp. Finding serious success with the Howdy Orange drink, the corporation’s founder, Charles Leiper Grigg, started fussing with lemons and limes and in 1929 believed he’d concocted the great “Uncola.” By ’36, the citrus soda had done so well that Grigg changed the name of the company to The Seven-Up Co. and after WWII, his magical tonic had become the third-most successfully selling soft drink in the world.
Part of what made his brainchild so successful was asking for marketing help from Disney.
“What set 7UP apart was that they hired Disney to do the Fresh Up Freddy character and that was irresistible when I was a kid,” Davidson explained. “Every company had a slogan, but few Philly sodas besides Frank’s were big enough to advertise on TV like the major brands did. The major national brands had more slogans and jingles.”
At nearby Esposito’s Meat Market, 1001 S. Ninth St., Spivak and Davidson have set up a collection of vintage soda bottles that will be on display through tomorrow.
Rich Wagner, a Pennsylvania Brewery historian, was interested in the site for its functioning as a beer brewery over a decade ago.
“For me, the historical significance of the 7UP site was the fact that there had been a small weiss beer brewery there in the 1880s for about seven years,” he reported. “There was no connection, other than after it ceased to be a brewery, it was probably used as a bottling facility. Whether or not that is why it became the 7UP bottling plant is uncertain.”
Bottling seems like a fun quirk of Philadelphia’s soda history at this point — so few sodas are currently bottled in glass bottles, let alone sometimes hand-etched or painted. But often, a bottling plant or factory was not permanently hooked to a brewery or a soda company.
Long-extinct bottling locales are sprinkled throughout Philadelphia, with a few notables special to South Philadelphia.
“You will see that Kensington and Northern Liberties had the vast majority of the city’s breweries,” Wagner divulged. “Brewerytown was a concentration of some of the largest brewers in the city. The Continental Brewing Co. (21st Street and Washington Avenue), which closed at the onset of prohibition, was probably the largest of the two major brewers in South Philadelphia. The other was the Welde and Thomas brewery at 13th and Fitzwater streets, which emerged from prohibition (1933) as the Trainer Plant No. 1, (plant No. 2 was in Northern Liberties).”
Developers US Construction are set to turn the dilapidated lots into 25 townhomes and call it Mildred Court. The project, designed by JKR Partners, will unite a handful of vacant industrial spaces that includes the 7UP plant. The plan was approved by the Zoning Board of Adjustment in August. In 2011, US Construction built a slew of houses across the street in the an empty lot that was once the home of Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic Church.
The devolution of bottling, with fewer niche and locally-made sodas alive due to the corporate power of companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola, gets a nail in the coffin with this next step for Montrose and Carpenter Streets.
What about the fate of bottles altogether? Is that destined for extinction?
“There is plenty of bottled soda; the problem is just that the small soda maker can’t compete,” Davidson reassured, adding that South Philly’s where his love for soda (and the city) all started. “My dad grew up in South Philly, and it always seemed like the funkiest (in a good way) part of Philly to me. I think of South Philly as a living museum of Philadelphia roots and culture. It’s the part of Philly I like most.”
Contact Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at email@example.com or ext. 117. Comment at southphillyreview.com/news/features.