Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, November 3, 2005


Page 15



Hires Root Beer Falsely Portrayed As ‘America’s Original Root Beer’




“Hires Root Beer, America’s original root beer, is more than 120 years old and the oldest continuously marketed soft drink in the United States. Created by pharmacist Charles E. Hires, it began as a delicious herbal tea made of roots, berries, and herbs. After perfecting the recipe in his drugstore, Hires decided to call his drink ‘root beer’ because a friend thought it would be more appealing than ‘herbal tea.’ ”

So says the website of Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., an American subsidiary of the British company Cadbury Schweppes. Hires is one of its many brands (as is A&W Root Beer).

Just as Dr Pepper/Seven Up fibs in denominating Vernors “The Original Ginger Soda” (as discussed here last week), it deviates from the truth in its description of Hires.

Charles Hires in 1877 began marketing “Hires’ Improved Root-Beer Package,” a powdered substance from which a consumer could make root beer. The fact is that Hires “decided” to use the term “root beer” simply because that was the well established name of the beverage which his preparation was designed to produce.

Indeed, the American colonists drank root beer—sometimes slightly fermented, sometimes not—which was then called “small beer.” Hires might well be the oldest brand of root beer on the market in the United States, but it is hardly the original root beer.

Here are some newspaper references to root beer appearing well before Hires started marketing his mix:

The Southport Telegraph, a Wisconsin newspaper, on July 28, 1840 carried this item: “The editor of the Rahway [N.J.] Herald spent the fourth [of July] in the following manner:—Forenoon, feasted on cherry pie and root beer; afternoon on root beer and cherry pie; evening partook of both. Nothing like variety!”

The Milwaukie Democrat, published in Milwaukee, Wisc., on Oct. 13, 1843 published a report from New York reflecting on “celebrating the ‘glorious fourth [of July],’ in parading the dusty streets, rejuvenating in the oyster shops, or in drinking root-beer (that abominable compound) in the Park....”

According to the July 14, 1847 edition of the Watertown (Wisc.) Chronicle: “While in New York, President [James K.] Polk visited Fulton market, and was presented with a pine apple, a glass of root beer and a paper of tobacco. He received them all with a ‘low bow.’ ”

Dangers of home-made root beer were reflected in an article in the June 15, 1849 edition of The Star and Banner, published in Gettysburg, Pa. It said: “Five persons have lately died at Blairsville, Pa., by drinking root beer, made by mistake from wild parsanip instead of roots of sweet myrrh and sarsaparilla, and some 16 or 18 persons are still suffering from ill effects.”

An ad appearing on June 22, 1849 in  the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette was headed “Temperance Beverage.” It said: “You that are thirsty—and who is not, this hot weather?—go and drink Hopkins’ Root Beer and Sarsaparilla Soda manufactured by him at the corner of Martin and Main Streets. We drink it daily and think it nothing inferior to the nectar of the gods.”

Dr. Green’s Celebrated Root Beer was advertised in the June 11, 1853 edition of the Hornellsville (N.Y.) Tribune. It was manufactured locally and “furnished to village and country dealers on liberal terms.”

The New York Times, reporting on a horse fair, said on Sept. 18, 1858: “Fair Haven oysters, ice cream, and the more substantial fares of roast beef and boiled are to be had in plenty, and may be washed down with pop, root-beer, or soda-water, at one’s pleasure.”

“The fashionable drinks in Boston just now,” the Port Jervis (N.Y.) Evening Gazette observed on Sept. 4, 1869, “are root beer, New England root beer, old fashioned root beer, Ottawa beer, Chippews beer, and several other kinds of beer.” It added: “Lager beer [is] prohibited by the prohibitory law.”

It does appear that Hires sold an herbal tea before going into the root beer business—just as he sold a cough medicine and cough drops. There is uncertainty as to whether he acquired his herb tea recipe, as one account would have it, from an innkeeper in New Jersey while he and his first wife were on their honeymoon.

What is entirely certain is that Hires did not produce the “original” root beer in the United States and he was not the first to use the words “root beer” to describe a beverage.


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