Authors: Tristan Donovan
The widow's cures fascinated the young, sickly boy, and he would often help her hunt for herbs and roots in the fields and woods. He dreamed about becoming a “root doctor” who would travel the nation dishing out herbal brews to raise the ill from their sickbeds. But it seemed like an unattainable dream. He was, after all, needed on the family farm, and by the time he turned sixteen he had dismissed his herbalist fantasies as childhood folly.
Not that he forgot about the herbs. When he got sick he turned to the old widow's medicine rather than seeking help from physicians, and every time he recovered he became even more convinced that his roots and herbs could remedy anything. His conviction grew deeper in 1789 when both
he and his mother contracted measles. As Thomson's mother lay dying in her bed, doctors battled to save her but their treatments proved ineffective. After nine weeks of fever she died. As usual Thomson refused to see the doctors, dramatically declaring he would rather die than accept their “unnatural” cures. So when he lived and his mother died, he once again concluded his root brews saved him, and came to believe that the doctors killed his mother with their dubious cures.
So a year later when his wife fell gravely ill after giving birth to their first child, he called in the root doctors and when she recovered he decided it was time to follow his dream. He began administering his remedies to his family and neighbors. Then, as word spread, he began treating people for miles around. With his services in high demand he abandoned his pigs and began wandering New England selling his medical expertise. Thomson's homespun medicine centered on expelling disease by inducing vomiting, sweating, or bowel movements in patients. To make patients sweat he would prescribe steam baths and to make them vomit he would feed them
a vomit-inducing plant also known as Indian tobacco, which Thomson believed could cure just about everything. Armed with his baths and Indian tobacco, Thomson went from town to town promoting his remedies while delivering furious rants against the medical profession, which he regarded as no better than “Java's deadly trees.”
Doctors initially laughed at the heavy-browed backwoodsman with his pukeweed and wild-eyed rhetoric, but as Thomson's reputation grew it became clear that his diatribes against the medical profession were resonating with the public. In one case he so whipped up an Illinois crowd with his angry denunciations that they went on the rampage, killing a medical student and seriously injuring his teacher. Worried doctors began pressing for laws to curb his activities, but Thomson simply claimed such action was proof of the grand medical conspiracy he spoke about, winning over even more people in the process.
Thomson's star continued to rise for the next thirty years. He patented his medical system and began selling the right to use it to individual families for $500 a time on the condition that they kept the system a secret. By 1839 Thomson claimed to have sold one hundred thousand of these
“family rights,” enough to have made him a billionaire in today's money. But Thomson's followers did not keep the secret. Many of those he sold his family rights to taught others about his cures, and some opened schools that taught Thomsonian medicine. Thomson remained furious with those who divulged his secrets until October 1843, when he died while trying in vain to fend off an unidentified fever with his roots and his herbs.
Thomson's salesmanship may have been new but his folk remedies drew on a long tradition of using roots and herbs to produce medicinal teas or beers. Such brews were common in medieval Europe, where the poor would brew drinks made from roots, bark, herbs, and berries that would gently fizz with the gas of fermentation. Known collectively as “small beers,” these low-alcohol beverages not only contained plants that people believed had health benefits but, thanks to the alcohol within them, were actually safer than the dirty, parasite-ridden stream and river water they would otherwise have had to drink. One of the most popular and enduring small beers was dandelion and burdock, which was being made in the British Isles by 1265 and, according to legend, was the product of divine intervention. The legend attributes the creation of dandelion and burdock to the Italian priest Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had been praying to God for inspiration. After finishing his prayers, the thirteenth-century Catholic saint headed into the country and, trusting in God to provide, made a drink from the first plants he encountered. The resulting weed brew aided the priest's concentration, enabling him to develop the arguments he set out in his influential guide to Christian beliefs,
The practice of brewing small beers came to North America as the Europeans began their exploration of the New World. Spruce beer made from the branches of the conifer tree became a favorite among the early colonists. One early advocate of spruce beer was Sir William Vaughan, a Welsh poet and aristocrat who made it his life's mission to establish a settlement on Newfoundland. Vaughan hoped to create a New Wales to rival New England and the new Scotland of Nova Scotia that the Scottish were talking of establishing. He bought land on the chilly island, and in 1616 he paid a group of Welsh families to travel there and establish the settlement of Cambriol.
The families did little more than erect some meager shacks that barely got them through their first winter, but Vaughan was undeterred. He sent a second group and, from his comfortable home in Britain, started supplying them with medical advice that included the recommendation that they drink spruce beer rather than strong liquor. The spruce beer wasn't enough. The colonists endured years of harsh winters, pirate raids, and attacks from French settlers of Canada who repeatedly set their crops on fire before the bid to create New Wales fizzled out in the 1630s.
While New Wales vanished from the map, spruce beer endured. By the time of the Revolutionary War, spruce beer was so popular that the British were giving their soldiers seven drinks of it a day. Not to be outdone, George Washington added a quart of spruce beer to his troops' daily ration of peas, oatmeal, and salt pork. Even as late as 1887 spruce beer was common in what could have been New Wales, with the
reporting that “the fishermen of Newfoundland, Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence drink large quantities of spruce beer.” By then, however, spruce beer had been overshadowed in the United States by another small beer descendant: root beer.
Root beer emerged almost at random and with little consistency in its composition, save that it was a drink of roots, herbs, berries, and barks brewed to a family recipe. Some recipes harked back to the earlier small beers with the inclusion of dandelions, spruce, or birch bark, the core ingredient of birch beer. Others used bark from the Joshua tree, whichâthanks to its saponin contentâgave the resulting brew a foamy head reminiscent of regular beers. More often homemade root beers featured licorice root, sarsaparilla, vanilla, wintergreen, and sassafras.
Wintergreen was a popular flavoring often used in chewing gum and toothpaste while sassafras, like sarsaparilla, had become highly prized in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe as a treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea. So great was the desire for sassafras in Britain at the start of the 1600s that when the English explorer Captain Martin Pring carried out his 1603 survey of Maine, New Hampshire, and Cape Cod he did so with the sole aim of bringing home a ship loaded with the plant. Pring's voyage was an immense success. He returned to the English port of Bristol with a full
cargo of sassafras and profited greatly from his efforts. So did Sir Walter Raleigh, whom Queen Elizabeth I had awarded a monopoly that gave him trading rights over all cargo from the New World. The sassafras voyage encouraged Pring to make further expeditions, expeditions that would lay the foundations for the trade routes that later led to the colonization of America.
For years these root beer recipes were passed down through the generations and, despite being fizzy thanks to the fermentation process, had little to do with the sparkling waters being sold in bottles and at soda fountains. But in the second half of the 1800s, entrepreneurs began to look at the idea of taking root beer out of the home and into the stores and fountains. The earliest known attempt to turn root beer into a commercial product came in 1866 when Henry Smith and Hiram Snow of Dover, New Hampshire, hatched a plan to sell bottled root beer. The duo envisaged their drink, Smith's White Root Beer, as a summer beverage, and they sold it in stoneware bottles. In common with the homemade root beers, their drink was carbonated by fermentation and counted sarsaparilla, life-of-man root, prince's pine, spruce oil and sassafras among its ingredients. Whether Smith's White Root Beer achieved much success is unknown as all that remains of their efforts is a patent application and a few intact bottles. But just a few years later a farmer's son from New Jersey would complete root beer's transformation into a commercial product.
Charles Elmer Hires started his pharmacy career with a dollar-a-day job at a drugstore in Salem, New Jersey. After learning the ropes in Salem, he moved to Philadelphia, where he trained to become a pharmacist before opening his own drugstore, complete with a flashy octagonal soda fountain fashioned from dusty pink Tennessee marble. By the time he married in 1875 at the age of twenty-four, his drugstore was doing decent if unspectacular business. But all that was about to change.
For his honeymoon Hires and his wife went to stay at a boardinghouse on a New Jersey farm near Morristown. During their stay their hostess offered the teetotal Quaker couple her homemade “herb tea,” a root beer brewed using berries, bark, roots, and herbs collected from local fields and woods. While her drink gained its fizz from the fermentation of yeast rather
than artificial carbonation, the brewing process was cut short so that the beverage had no more than a trace amount of alcohol but was lightly carbonated. Impressed by her refreshing temperance beverage, Hires asked her for the recipe. The generous hostess happily obliged, detailing the process and even going to the trouble of taking Hires out to the woods and fields to point out the exact sixteen plants she used to create her beverage. As the woman pointed out the ingredients, the businessman in Hires stirred. Collecting all this stuff seemed terribly time consuming, he thought. Would it not be better to make an extract and sell it so that all that needed to be done was to add yeast, sugar, and water? Also, he thought, if an extract was produced on a large scale then the finest ingredients from across the world could be used, rather than whatever happened to grow nearby.
Hires returned to Philadelphia inspired, and he set to work creating a powdered root beer extract that he envisaged as the perfect marriage of quality and convenience. With the aid of two local physicians he identified roots, berries, barks, and herbs that would make his drink healthy as well as tasty. The final recipe included sarsaparilla, wintergreen, spikenard, birch bark, Italian juniper berries, and dog grass. In keeping with his belief in abstinence from alcohol, the young businessman named his beverage Hires Herbal Tea and readied himself to introduce it at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition. But when he told his plans to his friend Reverend Dr. Russell Conwell, the Baptist minister who had found fame with his motivational “Acres of Diamonds” speech, the clergyman objected. “For Heaven's sake don't call it herb tea,” Conwell exclaimed. “Our hard-drinking Pennsylvania coal miners will never touch it under that name. Call it root beer.” Hires did as he was told and renamed the drink Hires Root Beer just in time for the exposition, where he handed out free glasses of his temperance beverage to crowds wowed by James Tufts's enormous, perfume-spitting Arctic Soda Water Apparatus.
Despite the free samples and name change, sales of Hires Root Beer would remain sluggish until a chance meeting changed Hires's fortunes. One morning while Hires traveled to his store on the Market Street cable car, a man named George Childs sat next to him. The two began talking and Childs, the publisher of the
Philadelphia Public Ledger
Hires, “I have had a taste of your root beer, and think it fine. Why don't you advertise it?” Hires explained that all his money was tied up in his business and he had none to spare. “Let the advertisements make money for you,” responded Childs, who then offered to delay billing Hires for any ads he bought until he was making enough money from his root beer to settle the bill. Shortly after, Hires placed his first advertisement.
“Sales increased slowly at first, and then more rapidly, until I felt justified in asking the
for a bill,” recalled Hires years later. When the bill came it was a shock. “It amounted to more than $700! I nearly had heart failure, for while I knew advertising cost money, I had no idea that it cost
much. That was really the turning point of my career as an advertiser, for I found courage enough to let the advertising go on running while I was paying off the $700. For the next 10 years I put every penny of profit from the root beer business back into advertising.”
As sales grew so did Hires's commitment to advertising his root beer extract, a packet of which would cost twenty-five cents and could produce five gallons of the drink. His promotional campaigns became bolder and bolder, setting the tone for not just the soft drink industry but advertisers everywhere. He pushed Childs to let him run ads over two newspaper columns rather than the standard one-column width, and he became one of the first advertisers to buy an entire page of a US newspaper. Soon he was timing the publication of his daily newspaper ads to coincide with hot weather so that people were more likely to see the promotions for his refreshing drink while feeling thirsty. By 1884 Hires Root Beer ads were appearing in papers throughout the United States and Canada.
Hires's promotional assault didn't end there. He opened a printing division within his company that produced a blizzard of promotional cards, lithographs, booklets, and pictures, many of which emphasized the link between Hires and Christian temperance with painted scenes from the Old Testament or quotations from scripture. He hired seventy-three salesmen to travel the length and breadth of America, going from town to town sticking his booklets into letterboxes. The lithographs and cards were sent to stores to help jolt customers into buying some Hires Root Beer extract. To improve brand recognition among children, Hires came
up with the Hires Root Boy, a chubby infant mascot who always wanted one more root beer.