Places that Matter

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Jahn's Ice Cream Parlor (former)

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Store front-close, Kate Fox
Store front-close, Kate Fox
Jahn's and RKO, Kate Fox
Store front-far, Kate Fox
Soda fountain machine, Kate Fox
Jahn's Girls, Courtesy of Nancy Cataldi
Classic ice cream parlor famous for heaping servings
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Place Matters Profile

By Kate Fox

Though globe-bulbed chandeliers and hanging lamps with stained-glass shades cram the ceiling, just a dim light spreads across the black-and-white checkerboard tile floor at Jahn’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlour in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens. It’s cool and quiet inside, with a few people sitting in booths, halfway through their sundaes and sandwiches. A closer look at the walls reveals that nearly every inch of dark, wood paneling is etched with initials, names and messages from those who have come to this spot at the intersection of Myrtle and Hillside Avenues at some point since it opened over 80 years ago. Suddenly, the room feels a little more crowded.

Jahn’s (locally pronounced as Jan’s) has been continuously operating in Richmond Hill since the early 1930s; it was one of four branches opened by founder John "Papa" Jahn in Brooklyn and Queens during the first half of the twentieth century. A German immigrant who arrived in New York in the 1880s, Jahn opened his first soda fountain in 1897 at 138th Street and Alexander Avenue in the Bronx, in the thick of a veritable boom-time for the American soda fountain. It is estimated that over 50,000 were in operation across the country by 1895 and that number doubled over the next decade.

Drinks made with soda water had been growing in popularity since the early 1800s, due to a combination of temperance advocacy, affordability (around the turn of the twentieth century, the average cost of a drink ranged between five and ten cents), and sheer novelty. Available late-nineteenth century flavors were surprisingly varied, ranging from cherry, mulberry, and raspberry--typical of most corner stands in New York City neighborhoods-- to exotic options like coriander, blood orange, and crushed violets, which might appear on the menu at larger fountains. The ice cream soda as we know it today had its debut sometime in the 1870s, inspired by an earlier beverage made from sweet cream, shaved ice, syrup, and soda water. By the end of the century it was a soda fountain standard and Jahn’s in the Bronx was no exception to this trend.

The interior appearance of the first Jahn’s--tiled floor, long marble countertop, dark wood paneling, numerous and decorative light fixtures--was typical of a time when precision and flourishes of opulence went into both the preparation of a fountain soda and the environment where it was enjoyed. The look was intentionally recreated in the subsequent branches, including the location in Richmond Hill, which is the last of those four original locations in operation. (Many Jahn’s franchises opened during the latter-half of the twentieth century; one, which has been in Queen’s Jackson Heights neighborhood since 1959, is also open.