Moxie Soda Outsold Coca-Cola

If you go to the super market and examine the soft drink shelves, it will take a good bit of luck to find that particular New England soft drink - Moxie - that was based here in our neighborhood for twenty-five years.

Moxie is older than Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. From 1928 to 1953 it was made at 74 Heath Street at "Moxieland", as the plant and headquarters was called. It may look like a cola or root beer, but the original taste was not like any other soft drink. People either loved it or thought it was the worst stuff they had ever tasted. It had a distinct, strong medicine taste, and in its best year of 1920 it outsold Coca-Cola.

Augustin Thompson created Moxie in Lowell in 1876, about ten years before Coke. He was a medical doctor who brewed up a mixture of Gentian root extract, cinchona, sassafras, caramel and other flavorings to make "Moxie Nerve Food". It was billed as a medicine which can "recover brain and nervous exhaustion; loss of manhood, imbecility and helplessness. It has recovered paralysis, softening of the brain, locomotor ataxia and insanity". Moxie Nerve Food, like all early soft drinks in America, was first created as a medicine, not a recreational drink.

Carbonated beverages started out as cures thousands of years ago, and can be traced back to the Greeks and Romans who thought water could treat ailments. Cold and hot baths and steam rooms aided the curative process long ago and still do today. Hot springs with dissolved chemicals and minerals were thought to be restorative, and health "spas" were popular in Europe as places to "take the water cure". The natural carbonation in some of these springs helped digestion and other ailments and people began to drink the water as well as sit in it. These "tonics" invigorated, refreshed and increased the body tone of their quaffers.

After the US Civil War, pharmacists began to add medicinal roots and herbs to produce a more curative drink. Sugar was often added to counter the bitterness of these concoctions and to make a better-tasting drink. These medicinal tonics developed into today's soft drinks and New Englanders still call them tonic and get them at the corner spa. Moxie Nerve Food, named by Dr. Thompson after the American Indian Moxie Falls in Maine, became New England's tonic.

Thompson expanded his Nerve Food to a beverage soft drink and bottled it in 1884. (This date is still printed on every Moxie container.) The drink was an enormous hit at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. When the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed, Moxie Nerve Food became simply Moxie and no more outrageous claims were allowed. But the soft drink Moxie thrived under Thompson and an entrepreneur partner, Frank Morton Archer. He sent eight-foot model bottles around the country pulled by horses or trucks, and they visited more than 40,000 towns. Of course, the drivers were called Moxie Men.

In 1916, Archer came up with an advertising idea that he called the Moxie Horsemobile: He mounted a dummy horse onto a car chassis and fixed the controls to enable the driver to sit in the saddle and operate the automobile. Everywhere they went, crowds appeared and followed the Moxie Man in the "Moxiemobile". Within four years of the invention of the Moxiemobile, Moxie was outselling Coca-Cola. Even to this day, the Moxie Man appears on every Moxie label.

Moxie's advertising played up the drink's bitterness. They said "It's the drink for those who are at all particular" and "What this country needs is plenty of Moxie". The name began to be imitated by Proxie, Noxall, Modox, Rixie, Noxie, No-Tox, and Toxie soft drink companies. Frank Archer added a Moxie Song, celebrity endorsements, and more advertising and the company grew. The word "moxie" entered the English language as another word for spirit or verve.

In 1928, the company moved to 74 Heath Street near Jackson Square and called their factory Moxieland. Dr. Thompson's sons, Frank E. Thompson and Harry A. Thompson were president and treasurer, and Frank Archer was chairman. Visitors were welcome to visit the plant at Heath, Bickford, and Parker Streets to see the mile of conveyer belts and 150,000 cases of Moxie and Pureoxia Ginger Ale all around them. If they couldn't visit personally, they could watch a movie Frank Archer had made showing all the steps in production and emphasizing the quality and care taken at the plant.

When the Depression started, the Moxie Company decided to cut back on advertising everywhere, including New England. That was a mistake, and they began to lose out to the present national leaders Coke and Pepsi. In 1953, Moxie moved to Needham Heights, and the Boston Housing Authority demolished the Jamaica Plain factory to build the Bromley Park Housing Development. The company produced the short-lived Ted's Root Beer in 1959 named after the Red Sox star Ted Williams, and was a leader in the sugar-free soft drink era when almost half of its output in the late 1960s was Diet Moxie. But by then, the company had been on a decline for almost forty years and was just a regional New England seller.

Moxie was taken over in 1967 by new management, and purchased the NuGrape Company of Atlanta and moved down to Georgia in 1968. In Georgia the company known as Moxie-Monarch-NuGrape produces NuGrape, SunCrest, Kist, Nesbitt's, and Grapette soft drinks nationwide, as well as Moxie, which is still primarily for New England. A disastrous reformulation in 1968 lost them half their customers in New England, and they went back to "old fashioned Moxie" soon after, but this current recipe is not the same as the real heavy and tangy old Moxie.

And so, raise a glass of real Moxie to the local drink that swept the country and left its name in the language as "the spirit of America...a word for the audacity of the movers and shakers who continue to change the world."

Sources: Tchudi, Soda Poppery, The History of Soft Drinks in America, New York, 1986; Potter, The Moxie Mystique, Newport News, Virginia, 1981.

Copyright © 1995 Michael Reiskind

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