Prohibition didn’t swoop down unheralded from the skies in 1920, ejecting alcoholic beverages in some sort of surprise attack. No, the roots of Prohibition go deep in American history, stretching back well into the early 1800s. For a time in the 1850s, in fact, Ohio was technically a dry state, voted into mandatory abstinence by the General Assembly in 1854 and upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1855.
At least one Cincinnati newspaper editor cheered such temperance efforts as he promoted his favorite beverage, root beer. Scanning The Daily Cincinnati Commercial from the 1840s, a modern reader can almost taste Editor Lucius G. Curtiss’ thirst for his beloved root beer. Here he is in the May 8, 1846 edition:
“Henry Arthurs’ Root Beer suffered some in this office yesterday; at least one dozen bottles were completely ‘sucked in.’ Arthurs says he is determined to make his root beer make its way into public favor. Go ahead.”
Toward the end of the year, Arthurs brought another case around, receiving additional praise from Curtiss [November 13, 1846]:
“Yesterday our boys regaled themselves on a dozen of Arthurs’ Root Beer, left at the Commercial office, and they do say it was very fine. We can hardly have a doubt of it, from the way the popping of corks was carried on for a time. Mr. A intends manufacturing it through the winter.”
Interestingly, Cincinnati’s root beer bottlers, at least the several who popped up (so to speak) in the 1840s, brewed non-alcoholic beverages as a sideline. Almost every Cincinnati root beer brewer was primarily engaged in making and selling vinegar.
We tend to forget that root beer was called root beer because it was produced, like vinegar, through fermentation. All the early root beer recipes called for yeast and some sort of sugar—usually molasses—to promote fermentation and, of course, carbonation.
The old recipes also called for a veritable witch’s cauldron of herbs that would have generated a taste quite unlike the sassafras-heavy formulation that’s standardized today. An 1873 version called for hops, yellow dock, burdock, sarsaparilla, dandelion, and spikenard roots along with infusions of spruce and sassafras oils. A 1909 recipe is based on sassafras but also contained sarsaparilla, tansy, and wintergreen.
Naturally, with all these roots, herbs, and oils involved, purveyors were going to claim medicinal properties for their beverages. Cincinnati’s root beer merchants were no exception. Hiram Nash, yet another vinegar boiler caught up in the root beer craze, recruited Daniel Drake and four other medical doctors to affirm the healthful effects of his root beer in fighting cholera during the 1849 outbreak. While the herbs and other ingredients may not have actually helped fight intestinal bacteria, Nash’s customers at least drank something other than Cincinnati’s water, through which cholera was most certainly transmitted.
Similar claims for herb-based soft drinks at this time claimed they could prevent, and even cure, everything from scrofula, king’s evil, tetter, and blood impurities to cancer, syphilis, leprosy, salt rheum, crysipelas, mercurial disease, and neuralgic affections.
Editor Curtiss was so fixated on the virtues of root beer that he believed it could also cure society’s ills. On October 6, 1845, the Commercial printed a brief review of the Cincinnati police blotter: Sarah Wallace was charged with vagrancy, William Gillman for disorderly conduct, and Michael Crowley for being riotous. Curtiss could not constrain himself from opining, “If the above named individuals had taken some of Durfee’s famous Root Beer, instead of indulging in brandy or whiskey, the consequences would have been more to their advantage.”
Well, maybe or maybe not. As root beer gained popularity, Cincinnati saw the opening of several root beer parlors that attracted their own sort of unsavory crowd. The Commercial [November 30, 1849] reported on one such fracas:
“James Ratcliff, John Mather, Pierson Ishworth, and John Fish went into a kind of ‘root beer shop,’ and made themselves too familiar about the house. After ‘hoeing it down’ for some time, the officers were sent for and the dancers taken to the watch-house. Each were fined $5 and costs.”
Other reports involve root beer drinkers being thrown out of the shops and pelting nearby homes with rocks and street fights involving knives and root beer bottles. Root beer also figured into traffic accidents. The Cincinnati Enquirer [July 12, 1845] reported:
“A horse ran off on the 4th and injured a carriage, being frightened by the pop of a root beer bottle. The Mayor should include ‘ginger pop’ in his firecracker proclamation.”
Despite its attendant problems, root beer consumption sky-rocketed in Cincinnati. In 1847, vinegar king James Durfee sold 31,287 bottles of root beer in one week, with Saturday sales alone reaching 8,906 bottles. All of this made Editor Curtiss very happy, although he didn’t live to see the full flowering of soft drinks later in the century. The Cincinnati Gazette [July 11, 1881] noted the “soda craze” at Peebles grocery store:
“If there was ever an excusable mania following as it does roller skating and other hot fashions, it is the present one of drinking cool and refreshing Soda Water. The run on the fountain of Jos. R. Peebles’ Sons Pike’s Opera House has been enormous. It has come to such a pass that ladies and children cannot be accommodated at the usual counter, and orders have been given to have them promptly served in any part of the store with Soda and the kindred beverages of the season, such as the famous Birch Beer, Root Beer, Cherry Beer, Spruce Beer, Ginger Ale, New Orleans Mead, and the various mineral waters.”
A standard root beer flavor did not begin to infiltrate Cincinnati until the arrival of Hires’ root beer in the 1880s. When first introduced, the drink appeared as a small bottle of flavoring in a box; customers had to mix the flavoring with five gallons of water and bottle it themselves. Hires’ limited its medicinal claims, noting only that its root beer kept the blood pure and cool and the stomach in a “normal” condition.