Charles E. Hires and the Drink That Wowed a Nation by Bill Double

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Charles E. Hires and the Drink That Wowed a Nation
The Life and Times of a Philadelphia Entrepreneur
by Bill Double
Temple University Press, 228 pp, paper $24.95

Long before there was Coke, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper, there was root beer. American Indians flavored water with various roots, including those of sassafras trees. European Americans liked sassafras-flavored concoctions, and homebrewers added a wide variety of other roots, herbs and leaves to create tasty medicinal beverages that purportedly purified one’s blood

In this book, Bill Double tells the story of how Charles E. Hires, a drugstore operator and herbal remedy inventor in Philadelphia, began selling Hires Root Beer Extract in 1875. Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition of 1876 convinced him that his flavorful extract had national appeal. The fair also helped Hires launch a distribution network for its sale. Through aggressive advertising campaigns, he gradually dominated the national root beer market.

Hires confronted crises along the way. Some temperance advocates opposed root beer because of its potential alcoholic content. Hires had considered naming his extract “root tea,” but others convinced him that the name “root beer” would be better for sales. Although Hires promoted his root beer extract as a nonalcoholic temperance beverage, sales likely lagged because of the name. (Double points out that ironically the name “root beer” probably improved sales later during Prohibition.) A more serious concern was the rapid success of other soft drink companies that sold syrups directly to soda fountain operators and bottlers. Their success convinced Hires to follow their lead. It was his bottled root beer that eventually achieved national stardom.

Double’s volume is the first book-length biography of Hires and the first book-length history of Hires Root Beer. Along the way, Double explores the rapid expansion of soda manufacturing in America and offers glimpses into Philadelphia history from the post-Civil War period to Prohibition. The book is well-researched, insightful, and a good, fun read.

Andrew F. Smith
New School University