Makes Five Gallons Of A Delicious Drink: Health and Political Debate Through Root Beer?
Today sodas high in sugar are considered indulgent treats or unhealthy drinks, often disparaged as empty calories. Over the last decade consumption of these and other sugary beverages has dropped by nearly twenty percent (NY Times). However, this was not always the case, the development of sodas in the United States was closely tied to that of patent medicines as both were made by pharmacists and claimed to have natural healing and rejuvenating properties.
Comparisons of these early advertisements and this warming poster will illustrate how much has changed since the turn of the 20th century. Consumers today may wonder how early sodas made these health-based claims and what was going on in America during this period that could have popularized soft drinks as a healthy option?
Part of the answer can be found in the historical investigation of a small bottle found during CAP’s excavations of Faculty Row. The bottle, labeled on all four sides reads, “HIRES IMPROVED ROOT BEER // Manufactured By Charles E. Hires Co. // MAKES FIVE GALLONS OF A DELICIOUS DRINK // PHILADELPHIA PA”. It’s a small extract/patent medicine bottle and measures 11.5 cm tall and 4 cm wide at the base. Based on the bottles body, base, and finish ( the top) we know it was mold-blow and tool-finished, rather than machine made. This gives the bottle a likely manufacturing date somewhere between 1890 and the mid-1920s (SHA Bottle Guide). It is possible to further determine the bottle’s manufacturing date, by investigating the “C 2” embossed on the base and other features of the body.
Historical archaeologists typically use maker marks, the embossed logos of the bottle producers, to find the earliest possible date for the artifact. Unfortunately, “C” is not a unique identifier, so it is difficult to pin to a specific bottle factory or to even be certain it is a maker’s mark. Additionally, while the Gould Amendment in 1913 required that bottles be embossed with their volume (Meadows 2006: 2-3), there is no indication that the “2” on this bottle relates to its volume.
However, it is possible to use the mold vents on the body of the bottle to roughly estimate of the bottles manufacturing date. For mold-blown bottles vent marks and manufacture date are positively correlated, a high number of marks suggest the bottle would have been made in the later years of the 1890-1925 spread. The Hires extract bottle found at Faculty Row has mold vent marks on almost every embossed letter, just what one would expect from a mold-blown bottle made in the 20th century (SHA Bottle Guide).
From the text embossed on the bottle, it is apparent that this bottle was part of a “root beer kit” developed by Charles E. Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist and entrepreneur, who is credited with the first commercially produced root beer soda. Hires purportedly took a recipe for spiced root from an unnamed innkeeper after trying it as her guest and used this recipe to develop a powered, and later liquid extract, which when mixed with sugar, water, and yeast and left to brew would make five gallons of root beer soda. His concoction was a hit at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Expo and in 1890 Charles E. Hires Company was incorporated (Funderburg 2002: 93-4).
A key to Hires’ success was his aggressive commitment to marketing, in in span of three months in 1893 Hires spent more than $200,000 on advertising (Funderburg 2002: 94). Like other sodas of the time Hires root beer was touted to have numerous healing and invigorating effects. One ad from 1881 claims, “[Hires Improved Root Beer] has solved the problem of medicine by imparting strength and pure blood, which soon gives a person a clear and healthy complexion” (Hoolilhan 2001). However, Hires also focused on making his drink the popular choice of the temperance movement. Another ad highlights the drink’s purity, ““A pure food temperance drink that satisfies every thirst, revives the appetite, creates nerve force – prepares you for the daily task…” (State Museum of Pennsylvania 2015).
Hires originally named the drink root tea, changing it to root beer in an attempt to attract Pennsylvania miners. He convinced temperance organizations, who had previously critiqued the drink, that it “contained half as much alcohol as a loaf of homemade bread” (Funderburg 2002: 93-4). In 1920 Prohibition became national law and Hires Improved Root Beer, already positioned as a healthy and moral alternative to alcoholic beer, uniquely benefited from the temperance movement.
How does this relate to Michigan State University? The Hires bottle was found during a CAP excavation of Faculty Row in 2008. Constructed in 1855, Faculty Row was first designed as a series of independent homes for Michigan Agricultural College faculty. As the college expanded at the start of the 20th century, faculty began to move out and the buildings were increasingly used by students. By the end of the 1940s M. A. C. had become Michigan State College and many of the buildings of Faculty Row were replaced by the West Circle Dormitory Complex (CAP – Faculty Row Exhibit). It is likely that the Hires bottle dates to this period of transition, when Faculty Row was occupied by both students and educators.
The interpretation of the bottle’s significance changes somewhat depending on its manufacture date and the changing occupancy of Faculty Row. Drinking of alcohol has been prohibited on MSU’s campus since its inception and while students and faculty alike skirt these restrictions (Painter 2017), the topic of temperance and prohibition was often discussed and highly supported in the early 1900’s. In a review of the MSU archives website, I discovered numerous articles in the M.A.C. Recorder dating from 1901 to 1924 that refer to prohibition. Most of these articles include updates from the University’s Prohibition Club raising awareness and support for prohibition.
Three articles, dating from 1916 to 1924, illustrate the atmosphere towards prohibition on campus at the time. In 1916, the paper published an anonymous survey asking students whether they supported or opposed prohibition. They found that, “a large percentage of the students in favor of prohibition.” (M. A. C. Recorder July 6th, 1916). However, later that year the paper ran another article asking “Does Prohibition Prohibit?” and reporting a story where a math professor and President Kedzie intercepted a suitcase full of whiskey and anti prohibition fliers. The author praises the authorities and criticizes the efforts of “wet forces” to disparage prohibition efforts (M. A. C. Recorder Oct. 3rd, 1916).
A third article, this one during prohibition, seems to show dissent in the general student body as the administration canceled a vote among student and faculty to see if they preferred the law or wished it would be changed or abolished. The paper writes, “apparently the fear that the registered vote might not indicate the actual sentiment of the campus was one of the considerations which prompted the suppression of the movement” (M. A. C. Recorder March 17th, 1924).
While it is exceedingly likely that students and faculty alike circumvented campus and federal alcohol restrictions there was also a portion of M. A. C.’s population that strongly supported prohibition. The presence of Hires Improved Root Beer, a widely know temperance drink and whose founder was an ardent supporter of the movement raises interesting questions about the political context of its use. Alcohol use had to be kept quiet and likely could only be done safely with trusted friends and colleagues. Faculty members and students may have presented themselves as supportive of prohibition in public and acted differently in private. For them, serving and consuming this Hires Improved Root Beer may have been a useful tactic to avoid suspicion.
For those truly in support of the movement, Hires may have been a powerful symbolic reminder of the larger support for prohibition and a sign that one was committed to temperance conceptions of health and purity.
As we know, definitions of what is healthy and what is not change rapidly. This bottle represents a period in the public discussion of health, enacted and debated through the everyday lives of MSU’s population. Whether it was a point of political and moral tension or simply a delicious drink, the consumption of Hires Improved Root Beer demonstrates the ways in which our consumer choices can tell stories about our lives. What do the things you buy while on campus tell about you and do those differ from what you consume at home?
M. A. C. Recorder 1916 Does Prohibition Prohibit? In M. A. C. Recorder, Vol. XXIL. Michigan Agricultural College
M. A. C. Recorder 1916 How Students Stand On State Prohibition. In M. A. C. Recorder, Vol. XXL. Michigan Agricultural College
M. A. C. Recorder 1924 Prohibition Vote Is Headed Off. In M. A. C. Recorder, Vol. XXIX. Michigan Agricultural College
CAP 2009 Faculty Row: The Homes of MSU’s Founders. MSU CAP.
Bakalar, N. 2017 Americans Are Putting Down the Soda Pop. In The New York Times. The New York Times, NY.
Emery, K. M. 2016 Faculty Row, M. S. U. C. A. Program, Michigan State University.
Funderburg, A. C. 2002 Sundae best: a history of soda fountains. Bowling Green State University Popular Press
Hoolihan, C. 2001 A annotated catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater collection of american popular medicine and health reform. University of Rochester press
Lindsey, B. 2019 Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles. Society for Historical Archaeology https://sha.org/bottle/medicinal.htm#Druggist%20Bottle%20Dating%20Summary/Notes.
FDA Consumer magazine 2006 A Century of Ensuring Safe Foods and Cosmetics. FDA Consumer magazine (Issue):1-11.
Painter, A. 2017 BLIND PIGS, JAZZ, AND BOLSHEVISM: THE SPIRIT(S) OF REVOLT AT MICHIGAN STATE. In MSU Campus Archaeology Program. MSU CAP
Patton, K. 2009 Hires Root Beer: The Great Health Drink. https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/feature-articles/hires-root-beer-great-health-drink
Yates, Don. 2005 Charles E. Hires Company 1870 – Present Philadelphia, PA. Bottles and Extras Summer 2005(Issue).