Little Bits of History

Sassafras Tea

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 16, 2012

Charles Elmer Hires

May 16, 1866: Charles Elmer Hires invents root beer. He was 12-years-old when he began working in a drug store. By age 16 he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and worked until he had saved enough money ($400 or close to $9,000 in 2009 USD) and opened his own pharmacy. There is a legend he discovered “root tea” while on his honeymoon where it was served at the hotel he was staying at. Although a member of the temperance movement, Hires named his version of the tea as “root beer” thinking it would sell better. It didn’t catch on.

Hires continued to work on his recipe and in 1876 a friend, Reverend Dr. Russell Conwell, encouraged Hires to sell his product at the US Centennial Exposition being held in Philadelphia. Trying to catch market share, he then called the concoction “The Temperance Drink” and billed it as “the greatest health giving beverage of the world.” The exposition featured other great inventions, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s phone, Remington’s typewriter, and Heinz Ketchup. Hires used aggressive advertising to help spread the word about his drink. Eventually, the drink became a sensational success. He sold the powder to housewives and soda fountains. They mixed the powder with water, sugar, and yeast and it yielded five gallons of drink. He moved to drink syrup and by 1890 he was bottling the brew.

Root beer is a carbonated drink and was originally made using brewed sassafras root. It does come in an alcoholic form  as well as the traditional soft drink. Root beer, when brewed as an alcoholic drink has a very low level of alcohol. Other countries have Ginger Beer, but root beer is an American beverage. Today there are hundreds of varieties of root beers. Hires is part of the Dr Pepper Snapple Group. December 4 is International Root Beer Day.

Sassafras root is no longer used in the making of root beers. The trees are native to North America and eastern Asia. Various parts of the trees are used for a number of different purposes. Distilling the dried root bark produces an essential oil that was used for fragrances in perfumes, soaps, and aromatherapy. The yield from the roots is low and so today camphor is often substituted. Safrole, the distilled product, is used in making MDMA or ecstasy, and is a controlled substance. It was also found that long term ingestion of sassafras root products leads to liver damage and cancer. In 1960 the FDA banned the used of the product. In 1994 the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act once again allowed sassafras products on the market. The tea can be used as an anticoagulant.

I think the reason people continue to come is because we offer an old-fashioned environment. We have the old mugs that we still fill with root beer and it makes people think about the ’50s. – Pat Smith

It wouldn’t be summer unless I came to the root beer stand. – Caitlin Ryan

The egg creams of Avenue A in New York and the root beer float….are among the high points of American gastronomic inventiveness. – Mark Kurlansky

Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in the dark. You know what you are doing, but nobody else does. – Steuart Henderson Britt

Also on this day:

“Oh-oh! SpaghettiOs!” – In 1965 Franco-American puts SpaghettiOs on the market.
Sedition – In 1918, a new Sedition Act was put into place in the US.
Hank – In 1905, Henry Fonda was born.