As a teenager, riding the strip in the evenings of the early 1970s, a favorite place to stop was A & W. The food there was great, but the Root Beer Floats were fantastic. In fact, A & W was famous for their Root Beer Floats. My husband, Bob and I used to go there often, and it was a favorite of his little brother Ron’s too. It never occurred to me in those days, just where Root Beer came from, or who invented it. I didn’t really care. I just knew I liked it, and even though I no longer drink pop, I do like an occasional Root Beer Float.
But…where did Root Beer come from? Well, on this day, May 16, 1866, Charles Elmer Hires first came out with an early version of commercially prepared root beer. Hires was a Quaker pharmacist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania…his version of Root Beer became famous. I’m sure you’ve heard of Hires Root Beer. It was named after Charles Hires, but it was not the Root Beer that I grew up loving. Maybe that is because, as far as I know, A & W Root Beer was the first make a Root Beer Float. Of course, I could be wrong too.
In the days of Hires’ childhood, children were allowed to work, and at age twelve he had a job as a drugstore boy. Then at age sixteen he moved to Philadelphia and worked in a Pharmacy. He saved his money and when he had earned about $400, he started his own drugstore. Things were different then, and that was possible for a young man to do, o he did it. Nevertheless, he had that entrepreneurial spirit, and maybe that is why he was able to come up with something new.
There are those who say that he learned about root beer on his honeymoon in New Jersey, where the woman who ran the hotel served a herb tea known as “root tea” made from assorted roots. It is said that Hires thought that “root beer” would be more appealing to the working class. He originally packaged the mixture in boxes and sold it to housewives and proprietors of soda fountains. They needed to mix in water, sugar, and yeast. I suppose that after a while that got to be too much work, and eventually it came processed and in bottles. The funny this is that Root Beer was slow to catch on until Reverend Dr Russell Conwell told Hires to present the drink as “the temperance drink” and the greatest health-giving beverage in the world.” Hires was active in the temperance movement, and some say that he wanted root beer to be an alternative to alcohol. I can’t say that he was successful in that respect, because I don’t know anyone who would drink Root Beer instead of beer, unless they already didn’t drink.