“A pure food temperance drink that satisfies every thirst, revives the appetite, creates nerve force – prepares you for the daily task…”
It’s hard to believe that this quote from a Victorian trading card is actually in reference to one of the first commercially-produced soft drinks, Hires Root Beer. Originally known as Hires Herb Tea and Hires Root Tea, this tasty concoction consisted of roots, bark, herbs and berries. Though root beer-like drinks and flavors had existed for decades, Hires was the first company to produce the beverage in bulk and put it on the market for public consumption.
This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, selected by CAP Curator Diana Zeltmann, is a pair of Hires artifacts: a bottle that would have contained ready-to-drink root beer and a package of unopened Hires extract. Both items date to roughly 1930 and remind us of Hires Root Beer’s century-long popularity with American consumers. These artifacts will be on display this fall at The State Museum as part of the upcoming Pennsylvania Icons exhibit.
Charles Elmer Hires, a Philadelphia Pharmacist and distributor of Hires’ drinks, allegedly had his first taste of root beer while staying at a boarding house in his home state of New Jersey. So enamored with this flavor, Hires persuaded the proprietor to share her recipe. Once back at the Philadelphia pharmacy that he opened in 1869, Hires and some chemist friends experimented with the recipe. They eventually created a powder that could be boiled and made into a sweet drink. Hires initially called this drink a tea and touted its healthful nature. However, Hires was advised that he could open up the market to Pennsylvania miners if the drink was not called a tea. Hires ran with that advice and changed the name to root beer. Hires sold his beverage during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, gathering a large following of customers as well as making a large profit.
Hires Root Beer was originally sold as an extract and meant to be boiled at home by the consumer. Brewed with yeast, water and sugar, the “Hires Root Beer Kit,” which sold for 25-cents, could produce nearly 5 gallons of liquid. Soon, Charles Hires realized he could have even more success if he were to make syrup that need not be brewed. This strategy led to the creation of pre-mixed bottles that were introduced by the Charles E. Hires Company in 1893.
Thanks to the drink’s great taste and the fact that the beverage was sold as a healthy alternative to alcohol, water and fruit juice, sales soared. However, the real reason behind Hires Root Beer’s success can be found in its creator’s use of advertising. Charles Hires believed in saturating the market with print ads. He distributed numerous Victorian trading cards with beautiful artwork and creative wording that touted the healthy qualities of his drink . Today, Charles Hires is credited for purchasing the first color advertisement on the back page of the Ladies’ Home Journal. The old adage, “it takes money to make money,” was not lost on Charles Hires. By the time he was nearly 70 years old, his company was worth more than $2 million.
The Hires family sold its brand in the 1960s. After passing through several hands, Hire’s fell under the control of the Dr. Pepper-Snapple Group in 2008. This company owns Hires today, and though not found in many retail stores, Hires Root Beer can still be purchased through large online merchants.
About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.