The Victorian Root Beer War

The Victorian Root Beer War

If you remember the 1980s, you remember “The Cola Wars“, the epic battle between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola (or more “eighties-speak”: Coke and Pepsi). The Root Beer Wars of the 1890s were not a thing like the Cola Wars of the late 20th Century. No two root beer companies were in competition for supremacy. Root Beer, by the very nature of its name, fought for survival against the Temperance Movement.

“The Cola Wars”, Image: Courtesy of Pinterest.

VINTAGE RECIPE FOR ROOT BEER

The Standard Formulary: A Collection of Nearly Five Thousand Formulas (1900). Cover image and the entire text available digitally, courtesy of Hathi Trust.

Root Beer Recipe, from The Standard Formulary: A Collection of Nearly Five Thousand Formulas (1900), page 395. Part 1 of 3.

Root Beer Recipe from The Standard Formulary: A Collection of Nearly Five Thousand Formulas (1900), p. 395. Part 2 of 3.

Root Beer Recipe from The Standard Formulary: A Collection of Nearly Five Thousand Formulas (1900), p. 395. Part 3 of 3.

The methods by which the extract for root beer is created involves fermentation. I can see why the “Temperance Ladies”, if ill-informed (or on a rampage), would object. Perhaps loudly. Read on, to see what the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had to say about Hires Root Beer.

HIRES ROOT BEER

NOW

Hires is a brand consumers recognize in the twenty-first century. Hires Root Beer is still for sale.

Hires Root Beer, currently for sale on Amazon.com.

Hires Root Beer Extract, available today. See Amazon.

THEN

The following advertisement from 1882 promoted Hires Root Beer, 25¢ for a package that makes 5 gallons of the touted “Temperance Beverage“.

Hires Imported Root Beer. The Daily Review of Wilmington, North Carolina. March 27, 1882.

Hires Root Beer Extract in corked, 3-oz. bottle. 1929 vintage. Currently for sale on ebay.

The Hires Rootbeer [sic] of 1897 The advertisement suggests that Hires Rootbeer cools drinkers off in the heat of the sun, keeps people well, and quenches the thirst.

Hires Root Beer Ad, published in the Manhattan Mercury of Manhattan, Kansas on June 2, 1897.

A TEMPERANCE BEVERAGE

Ethan Trex, a writer for Mental Floss, shares Hires Root Beer history, and the charming consequences of this delicious beverage. After all, it’s ALL in a name! According to this fun article, Hires wasn’t a drinker (of alcohol) and didn’t want anybody thinking his “root tea” contained intoxicants.

One of his mentors disagreed, though. Russell Conwell, a Baptist minister and the first president of Temple University, told Hires that he’d never make any money with something called “root tea.” The blue collar miners in the area wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a little tea. Now, root beer–there was a rough-and-tumble name that would catch on.

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The Baptist preacher’s advice to the teetotaling Quaker turned out to be sound. Hires gave away free mugs of root beer at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philly, and he was on his way to becoming America’s first soft drink millionaire.

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~ How the Temperance Movement Almost Killed Root Beer, by Ethan Trex, Mental Floss

Hires Root Beer proudly pronounces itself a Temperance Beverage, in Tyrone Daily Herald of Tyrone, Pennsylvania, on June 22, 1893.

HIRES CAUGHT IN “TEMPERANCE WARS”

Then, something funny happened. The “root beer” name Conwell had suggested came back to bite Hires. In 1895, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union turned its sights on Hires, partially because  of the word “beer” in the name. …the WCTU theorized that since his root beer was a sweet fermented beverage it must have some booze in it. (Chemistry apparently wasn’t the WCTU’s strong suit). Thus, having a frosty root beer was no better than pounding back a godforsaken actual beer.

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Instead of testing to see if there was actually any alcohol in Hires’ root beer, the WCTU simply called for a nationwide ban on his product, which had become wildly popular in drugstores around the country.

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~ How the Temperance Movement Almost Killed Root Beer, by Ethan Trex, Mental Floss

Laughable, now, isn’t it? That WCTU crusade lasted three whole years (1895 to 1898), and was finally settled by the same kind of independent lab verification (and sworn statements published far and wide) as Coca-Cola would have to do about five years later, to divorce itself once and for all from the stain of cocaine.

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Up Next!

Victorian Cheesecake?


Copyright © 2017 Kristin Holt LC

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