Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation
The Life and Times of a Philadelphia Entrepreneur
By Bill Double
Temple University. 240 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
A lot of sweet things have come out of Philadelphia. One of them is Hires Root Beer. One of the most durable brands in U.S. business history, Hires has been around since 1876, when Charles Elmer Hires (1851-1937) started selling packets of his dry extract. These days, the Hires brand is submerged in a conglomerate named Keurig Dr. Pepper, located in Massachusetts and Texas, but it’s still around and still “from” Philly.
So Philly writer Bill Double, author of Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation, is right when he says the story of Hires, an “inventive druggist who parlayed a humble home-brewed tea into an iconic brand enjoyed by millions,” is worth telling. In Double’s hands, it’s also worth reading. He brings his book to the Free Library on Nov. 14.
Much of this story would fit in the pages of Horatio Alger. Hires worked in a pharmacy as a late teen, saved his wages, and bought his own store, opening at 602 Spruce St. in 1872, barely into his 20s. How he found out about root beer is a matter more of lore than of hard fact. It seems unlikely he ever really “found out”: America’s kitchens were still largely rural and DIY; many a home brew and root tea slaked the American thirst. He was the first, however, to see the commercial potential in this humble brew made from ground roots and extracts.
A shout-out, by the way, to one of the future founders of Temple University, the Rev. Russell Herman Conwell, friend, adviser, the equivalent of a traveling TED talker, and a fellow teetotaler. Hires wanted to call his concoction “herb tea,” but Conwell steered him straight: “Call it ‘root beer’ and beat the anti-temperance crowd at their own game!”
The rest of the story indeed shows ingenuity and prime business skills. Hires kept an eye out for market changes, especially in technology. He started with a powder extract, then, tellingly, switched to liquid for greater household ease of prep. That was a big step: Sales boomed from 3,024 units in 1876 to 3,134,949 in 1894. Around 1900, when soda fountains and their related gear rose to prominence, he ramped up fountain sales. When the market for ready-made, bottled beverages started to burgeon, he moved his factory to Arch Street, then expanded again to the corner of Delaware and Fairmount Avenues, joining the 20th-century soft-drink revolution, one of the generation that produced Vernors, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr. Pepper.
He was especially farsighted with his enthusiastic embrace of advertising. He began with chromolithographed “trade cards” (plenty of great examples here) and newspaper ads (faithfully advertising in The Inquirer, much quoted). Hires relied, as Double tells us, “on the persuasive power of pictures.” His color ads in magazines and on the walls and windows of fountains, shops, and bars, with cherubic, rosy-cheeked children saying (like the kid on the cover of this book), “Say, Mama, I want another glass of Hires Root Beer,” were colorful, familiar features of the reading landscape, rich with production values that seemed down-home yet were in fact (for their era) high-tech. Hires plowed cash into unprecedentedly massive, strategic ad campaigns. They worked. At a time when such pushes were new, he proved that “a soft drink could capture a national following.”
Double portrays Hires as a man who believed in his product as a clean, honest drink reflecting high standards and good values. He wanted his sales force to believe that, too — and to go out and sell the heck out of it. Yes, the company long touted the supposed health benefits of root beer, but, as Double points out, such claims were at least “not wholly specious,” either by the standards of the day or in indigenous American health lore.
One of my childhood memories is of a home-made root beer float made with Hires. I wasn’t drinking for my health; I was drinking for the pleasure of it. That, as he knew, was what Charles E. Hires was selling. Sales hit $4 million in 1929, and after a Depression dip, more than $8.5 million in 1948. You can still buy 12-packs of Hires cans from Walmart.com, Amazon, and elsewhere. As Double points out at the end of the book, today’s Hires is an ironic combination of a legacy product and a mock substitute: The cans tout that 1876 founding year … and contain largely artificial ingredients, a far cry from the sugar and roots with which the canny Charles E. Hires began.