Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mr. Hires and the Black Cow

Once upon a time, long long ago at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Charles Elmer Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, introduced Hires Root Beer to the world. Young Charles was an adventurous sort of lad and quite the gifted entrepreneur and although he was the first to commercially bottle root beer, he did not invent it.

Many writers on root beer have credited Charles E. Hires as the inventor of root beer, but that is not quite correct. Long before Mr. Hires started marketing his product various forms of root beer have existed. In fact, root beer dates all the way back to colonial settlers. The colonist had made a beverage known as small beer. Basically, this was a normal beer that was drank very soon after bottling, and since fermentation hadn't progressed very far the beer was far less alcoholic than normal beers. Another problem the colonist faced was a lack of barley in which to make their beer so they used pretty much anything that would ferment. They soon found that by adding large amounts of sugar (actually molasses) that they could get just about anything to ferment. It wasn't long before they made a small beer out of various local herbs, barks, roots and berries. This was the first root beer.

Charles Elmer Hires was born in Elsinboro Pennsylvania (some say Elsinboro New Jersey) on August 19, 1851. As a son of a farmer, Charles was quite sure he did not want to spend the rest of his life toiling the soil like his father. Instead, he began experimenting with powdered roots and extracts developing medicinal syrups and tonics when he was probably suppose to be milking the cows. 

Personal Life: Charles Elmer Hires was born on August 19, 1851, on his family’s farm outside of Roadstown, New Jersey. He was the sixth of 10 children of John Dare Hires and Mary (Williams) Hires, who counted among her ancestors Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington. Despite such distinguished ties, the Hires family was not a wealthy one. Young Charles had very little formal education and held his first job before he reached his teens.

Hires was married twice, first to Clara Kate Smith in 1875 and then, following her death in 1910, to Emma Waln in 1911. 

Hires was a Republican and a devout Quaker who financed the restoration of the Merion Meeting House in Merion, Pennsylvania, where William Penn had worshipped. He even wrote a book about the project entitled A Short Historical Sketch of the Merion Meeting House (1917).  source

In addition to root beer, Hires made considerable money from the manufacture and distribution of condensed milk. The venture began in 1899 and blossomed into a wholly separate business for Hires. He eventually sold this condensed milk company to the Nestle Company in 1918, after having built more than 20 milk plants in various regions of the United States and Canada.

The story of Mr. Hires and the development of Hires Root Beer is a bit frothy at times and buried in a foam of inconsistency. I've tallied up a timeline gathered from a variety of sources. You will find additional information and resources below. 

1843-According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed), the earliest print reference to "root beer"was published in 1843. 
Nathaniel Hawthorne mentions both "root beer"and "ginger beer" in his House of Seven Gables" (1851)
1851-Charles Elmer Hires born.
1863-Charles E. Hires works as a drugstore boy at a pharmacy in his home town. He's paid $12 per week.
1867-1869-Charles Hires attends night classes at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science.
1870-Charles works as a Pharmacist’s Apprentice in Philadelphia. Using $400 he saved while working he opens his own pharmacy while living on the premises. He packages and begins selling the mix, Hires Herb Tea, at his pharmacy.
1875-Charles Hires marries Clara Kate Smith. They spend their honeymoon on a New Jersey farm. (some believe it was while he was on his honeymoon that he first tasted "root tea." The tea was a blend of sixteen wild roots and berries similar to a beverage consumed by Native Americans for many years prior. Charles persuaded his hostess to part with the recipe:)
1876-After several years of development, Charles E. Hires begins marketing kits for home brewers, stating that his recipe is the “Greatest Health-Giving Beverage in the World.” Hires Root Beer Extract is introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which took place between May 10, 1876, and Nov. 10, 1876. (A package of Hires extract sold for 25 cents, and it made five gallons of root beer; a wholesome temperance drink)

In the years following the Exposition, Hires continued to market his drink to the temperance crowd, and he also developed a liquid extract or syrup for use in soda shops. He began to ship root beer in kegs, and he even patented a dispenser called the "Hires Automatic Munimaker" that he sold to the soda fountains that were popping up everywhere. (source)

1879-The Hires Root Beer Company loses the patent for the name “Root Beer.”
1888-Charles E. Hires markets a preparation in liquid form for making root beer. This preparation was called "Hires Improved Root Beer." One package was sufficient to make five gallons of beer. Subsequently the name of this package in liquid form was changed to "Hires Household Extract."
1893-Hires offers convenient pre-mixed carbonated bottles of root beer for the first time. They are supplied by The Crystal Bottling Company and distributing to local retailers. The demand for the drink skyrockets (the recipe supposedly consisted of sugar or honey with such ingredients as sarsaparilla, sassafras, licorice extracts, vanilla and wintergreen)

Hires Root Beer quickly became a sensation. By the early 1900s, many homes in America had Hires Root Beer Kits, which allowed families to brew their own root beer by mixing dry extract with water, sugar and yeast at a cost of five cents per gallon. Despite the success of the home kits, Hires decided that he could sell more root beer if people didn't have to brew it. He later developed liquid concentrate and soda fountain syrup, as well as bottled root beer.

1893-August 19, 1893 the first National Black Cow Day!! (now what would a Black Cow be without Root Beer?)
1904-Hires markets, sells, and advertises a fountain syrup for making root beer. He spent $100,000 a year in advertising the syrup. Annual sales reach more than $500,000.
1906-June 26, 1906-The word "Hires" is registered as a trademark.
1913-How Charles E. Hires Laid the Foundation for His Commercial Success-Opportunities Come to All-The Philosophy of a Successful Merchant published in the American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record. (online copy @ Hires Root Beer Extract a Success Story.)
1937-Charles Elmer Hires dies in Haverford, PA.
1960-FDA bans the use of Sassafras oil in foods and drugs. (Sassafras oil was the key ingredient in root beer before 1960.)

Hires may have been the most successful early root beer producer, but he was not the first to make root beer in the U.S.A. Root beer was first developed in the U.S.A. and was brewed by many prominent soft drink and mineral water bottling plants as early as 1830. Ginger beer was the principal predecessor of root beer, and was made in England a hundred years earlier. There may be 8,000 different English stoneware ginger beer bottles, but no root beer bottles. Ginger beer was their favorite national beverage up until around 1930, when Coca-Cola became available world wide. "There were at least 45 known brewers of root beer prior to 1870. The term root beer may have originated around 1780. Doctor Chase used the term root beer in his 1864 book: Dr. Chase's Receipt Book and Practical Physician Donald Yates

The Black Cow

Celebrate the Wort Moon: Make Your Own Root Beer! Then, Make Your Root Beer Floats to celebrate National Black Cow Day which just so happens to be Today!

From the Washington Post This Week in History:

On Aug. 19, 1893, Frank Wisner, owner of a soda shop in Cripple Creek, Colorado, made the first root beer float. Inspired by the snow-capped Cow Mountain, Wisner called the drink Black Cow Mountain. It later was shortened to Black Cow. One variation of the recipe includes chocolate syrup and whipped cream.

What exactly is a Black Cow? From The Dictionary of American Food and Drink by John F. Mariani.

Any variety of ice-cream sodas made with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Usually the soda itself is either chocolate, sarsaparilla, or root beer (called a Boston cooler), and the name refers to the mixture of dark soda with the white dairy item floating in it. If made with chocolate soda (that is, seltzer, milk and chocolate syrup), it might be called a Black-and White, especially in the East. In the 1930s plain root beer sometimes went by this term, as did chocolate milk in the 1940s, especially at lunch counters.

Around the middle of the 1950s a favorite expression Anyone for a Black Cow? once again echoed across the East coast. Hires began marketing their Root Beer with such slogans as "Try a Real Black Cow It's Moovelous Just add vanilla ice cream to glass of ice cold Hires Root Beer" and the classic Soda Fountain Ice Cream Soda was once again at the top of the billboard. It didn't matter whether it was a Black Cow or a Brown Cow as long as it was a Root Beer Float!

Now, I know, many bloggers have all ready celebrated Root Beer Float Day this month. I've chosen today to celebrate because August in also National Inventors' Month and I thought it would be "cool" to "shake it up a bit" and celebrate National Black Cow Day! What better way is there to do that than serve you a few recipes which include root beer soda.

Root Beer Float Cake
Homemade Root Beer Floats
Root Beer Bundt Cake
Root Beer Cookies

The Homemade Root Beer recipe below may be just a tad outdated. It was harvested from a vintage Yeast Foam advertising leaflet probably distributed in the early 1900s by The Northwestern Yeast Company of Chicago. If you really want to try your hand at making your own home made root beer, you're better off following that first link.

Home Made Root Beer

Vanilla Ice Cream recipes are fairly easy to dig out online. One of my favorite classic recipes for Vanilla Bean Ice Cream was posted by The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond in July 2009. I've chosen to include a more vintage recipe from Elsie's Book of Magic Recipes published by the Borden Company in 1942. You see, today, also happens to be the day Gail Borden obtained his patent for condensed milk.

Elsie the CowCondensed Milk recipe

1. Hires RootBeer Facts
2. Colonial American beverages: Root Beer (food timeline)
3. Root Beer: Have Some, My Dear (excellent article)
4. The First Root Beer
5. Root Beer Float Cupcakes @ A Southern Grace
6. Hires Root Beer Celebrates 125th Anniversary
7. Hires and the Root of Root Beer
8. Does Hires Root Beer Date Back 120 Years?
9. Local Historians Argue Over the Root of Hires
10. The Federal Reporter 1912 p.890
11. Hires Trade Cards
12. Hires Root Beer by Don Yates (member of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors PDF file)
13. Locavore Liqueur: Philadelphia’s new colonial "Root Tea"
14. Homebrewers Outpost (supplies)


  1. As usual, what a great history lesson :)

    I had never heard the term "black cow" (although I did have the occasional root beer float growing up) until I met my spouse's grandmother. She is practically addicted to them, and whenever we visit, she uses our presence as an excuse to make them every night!

  2. WE used to make home made root beer a lot. It had yeast added to it and we had to store it on it's side or they would explode while waiting for it to ripen.

    Brings back fun memories :)

  3. I used to love Elsie! I really never knew the history of root beer, but it always fascinates me how so many of these soft drinks are linked to pharmacists. A black cow sure sounds tempting!

  4. Louise, thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. Nice to meet you!

    I like this post - it brings back memories. I am from Pennsylvania ;-) but have lived in Florida now for a long time.

  5. who knew rootbeer had a long history? haha. thank you for sharing, louise. i like rootbeer!

  6. Love that Northwestern Yeast leaflet with the root beer recipe. For some reason I've run into a lot of root beer lately--Weber's in Tulsa and Saint Arnold in Houston. Good stuff!

  7. I never knew that they were called Black Cows. As a kid, my parents and grandparents would just call them root beer floats too. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi Erica, Thanks for visiting. Thank you so much for the kind words. I may have gotten a wee bit carried away, again, but hey! Can I help it if Root Beer has a history???...Next time you go to visit, can I come. Now there's a lady I have something in common with!!!

    Hi Sher, I so want to make my own root beer. I've added it to my list of "someday" recipes:) I'll be over later to see today's outfit:)

    Hi T.W. I really should have given Elsie her very own post. Someday:) I sure could use a Black Cow about now. Heck, a Root Beer Float will do too!!!

  9. Hi Tina, It's nice to "meet" you too! I'm between New York and PA. I hope to someday be in PA full time. Big difference between Florida and PA. Drop by anytime and bring those pancakes!!!

    yes acey, a loooong history! you like root beer? for some reason, that doesn't surprise me:) now, what about a black cow???

    Hi Kathy, the leaflet is very delicate and undated. I was tempted to include the recipe for Cinnamon Rolls! Have you ever made Root Beer?

    Hi Andrew, I just love that soda fountain lingo. I hope to do a post on it in the future. Thanks for visiting:)

  10. I have never heard the term of "black cow" before...

    Ah so interesting to know about Root Beer :) The only root beer that I know is from A&W with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

  11. Very interesting and I am now so knowledgeable! Thanks for sharing x

  12. A & W with a scoop of vanilla ice cream is a Black Cow, Selby!!! Aaah so refreshing and yummy!

    Thanks for stopping by Jan. That hint about the chicken is priceless. Thank you for sharing...

    ah gee duckie, and you dear Miranda make story telling more colorful...

  13. Stopping by a quick hello. My mohter uase to always makeme Black Cows and cheer me up as a kid. Haven thad one in ages. Need to rectify that.

  14. Wow, what a fascinating history of root beer! I am thirsty now...

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  16. Very thorough research and interesting. Aren't root beer floats just the greatest?! That's what we always called them. There's a place in New Hampshire that makes their own root beer - the flavor is really strong but makes the best root beer floats!


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