Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hires and the Genesis of Root Beer

In this "Family Saturday" column, let me introduce you to a member of my extended family: Charles Elmer Hires, the man who is attributed to first marketing "Root Beer," and making a fortune doing it. Charles is my second cousin, six-times removed. His direct second cousin was Sarah Hires, my 4x great grandmother who married Benjamin Ballinger (as I discussed in last week's post).

The earliest "Hires" in America was Conrad Hoyer, who was born June 12, 1745 in Hannover, Germany. He arrived in New Jersey sometime in the 1760's and changed his name to "Hires," clearly seeking to Americanize himself. During the Revolution, he served in the New Jersey state Militia. He died around 1782.

Conrad married Christina Hitchner, the daughter of German immigrants John Jacob Hitchner and Magdalena Lottholtz. They had at least 7 children, the oldest being Daniel (my 6x great grandfather). One of their younger children, John, was the grandfather of Charles Hires.

Charles was born in 1851, and by the age of 12 he was working in a pharmacy. Back in those days, you didn't go to college to become a pharmacist. Instead, you apprenticed yourself to one, which is what Charles did.

The story behind the "creation" of root beer is not iron clad. The most common belief is that Charles was served a "root tea" during his honeymoon, from which he later formulated his beverage. However, I don't see how this can be true. Historical accounts state that Charles first marketed his "root beer" in 1866, but he didn't get married until 1875, so there is a major discrepancy somewhere. It's a convenient story to say he got the recipe from a little old lady who ran a hotel in New Jersey, while others claim the recipe originated with various Indian tribes. The fact of the matter is nobody can really say who first "invented" root beer, but it is certain that Charles Hires was the first one to market it in any major commercial manner.

The name root "beer" was a clever marketing ploy, used to appeal to the working class. Charles Hires was a Quaker and an active member of the Temperance Movement, so it is also clear that he picked this name so he could offer the drink as an alternative to alcoholic beer. At the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, it was advertised as a health drink, among other things, and after that it began to catch on.

Charles Hires eventually made millions with his marketing of root beer, which is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of 19th century America. There are hundred (or perhaps even thousands) of people living today who can claim some sort of blood relation to Charles on the Hires side.

The Hires brand is currently owned by Cadbury-Schweppes, the same people who own Doctor Pepper & 7-Up. Perhaps it's just my neck of the woods, but I can't find a bottle of Hires Root Beer anywhere these days. That really irks me. The "original" root beer is nowhere to be found in Washington County. Somebody ought to have a talk with the distributor.

6 comments:

  1. Fascinating post...'Hires' to you!

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  2. Hires is my childhood favorite. Haven't seen it in a while. Fascinating post.

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  3. I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Best of Sci/Fi Award.
    Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.
    ~Deirdra

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  4. Man, that's awesome! You have a tremendous family history. I love these kinds of stories. Very well-written to boot.

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  5. I am really enjoying your site. I am also a lover of root bear. It is fascinating to trace your faamilies roots.

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  6. I'm glad so many of you are enjoying these little snippets of my family history. I've done quite a bit of research, and it's nice to share what I've been able to uncover.

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