Thursday 16 May 2013

Sassafras Tea

Philaelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876 courtesy 

Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition of 1876 featured some outstanding inventions.  In one booth stood   Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating his new telephone;  in a second stood Philo Remington typing on his new typewriter; a third housed H. J. Heinz dabbing his ketchup on hot dogs; and a fourth featured Charles Hires serving his new concoction, root beer .  Where did Hires get the idea for his soft drink?  He was served sassafras tea at a hotel on his honeymoon.

Photo of Charles Hires courtesy 

Charles Elmer Hires was hired to work at a drugstore at age 12.  By age 16, he had saved $400 ($9,000 today) which was enough to buy his own pharmacy in Philadelphia.  Hires married in 1876 and honeymooned in New Jersey.  Sipping sassafras tea at a hotel with his wife, he got an idea.  Why not sell the drink  to housewives and soda fountain owners?  While the hotel proprietor had served her drink hot, he would serve his drink cold.  Using a mixture of roots, bark, herbs and berries, Hires sold the powder for only five cents.  Customers in turn took the powder and mixed it with with water, sugar and yeast to make five gallons of "root tea".


                                           Sassafras Root courtesy

Living in Cumberland County, many of his customers were hard-drinking, working-class folk.  Being a Quaker, Hires was an abstainer and encouraged his drink as an alternative to alcohol.  Being a pharmacist, he pushed a healthy lifestyle and called his root tea "the greatest health giving beverage in the world".  The druggist was a keen businessman and started marketing his product using Victorian trading cards, advertising cards which many people collected at the time.  With captions like "Hires Root Beer puts roses in your cheeks", the cards claimed that the drink would cure:  tuberculosis, bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough and diptheria.

         Hires Root Beer Logo    

            Hires Root Beer Logo

Victorian trading card courtesy

                     Ten years would pass in which Hires continued to sell his concoction.  However, it did not catch on.  Then, a friend named Rev. Russell Conwell suggested that he pedal his product at the upcoming World's Fair in Philadelphia.  Hires got a brainstorm:  he would change the name of his drink from root tea to root beer, making it more appealing to the hard-drinking Pennsylvania miners.  This time, it caught on.

By 1890, Hires was bottling the brew and started the Charles E. Hires Company.  Now a carbonated drink, consumers would see the trademark fizz rise to the top upon opening the bottle and pouring its contents.  By 1919, root beer became an even more popular beverage when Prohibition outlawed alcoholic drinks.  These laws would stay in effect until 1933.

Charles Hires passed away in 1937 but his legacy lives on.  You can still buy giant plastic bottles of Hires Root Beer with the trademark mug, the froth overflowing from the top.  And to think that it all started with a cup of tea.

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