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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Root Beer Blast from the Past!

Root beer is a small but powerful example of modern print advertising techniques in 19th century America.  The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana holds hundreds of trade cards, advertisements and ephemera.  The collection is organized into hundreds of categories ranging from agriculture to World’s Fairs, and root beer advertisements are found in the “Beverage” series of the Warshaw Collection.  The root beer companies exemplify new marketing schemes and a new way to make profit in patent medicines and “healthful” beverages.  There is also a large “Patent Medicine” series in the Warshaw Collection.

Hires Rootbeer trade card, ca. 1900.
The late 19th century, often known as the Progressive Era, was a time of shifting social customs.  Large corporations sprang up as smaller companies were absorbed or were run out of business.  New manufacturers such as Hires Rootbeer sent their products around the country to local grocers, druggists, and chemists, creating standardized nation-wide products.   Trade cards advertising Hires Rootbeer often give a local name and address to find the product, such as “S.O. Tarbox, Groceries and Drugs, Farmington, Me.”  Hires Rootbeer demonstrates the new way companies sold goods to a national market instead of merely a local one.

Some companies used games or pseudoscience to market their product.  Knapp’s Root Beer used palmistry on an advertisement for their root beer to attract more customers.  The drawing of a hand marked with letters corresponds to explanations on the back which supposedly indicate personality traits of the viewer.  Using palmistry on an advertisement attracted a new group of consumers to the brand.  People learned about the product while looking at the advertisement to figure out what their hands allegedly said about themselves.  Without the palmistry “hook,” consumers might not have given the advertisement a second look.  It is similar to the sponsorship that companies participate in today.  When Coca-Cola sponsors the World Cup they are getting brand notoriety, comparable to Knapp’s Root Beer palmistry.

Trade card for Knapps Root Beer, ca. 1900.
Verso of trade card at left.

Root beer advertisers also took part in the widely-used marketing scheme of patent medicines. Prevalent in the 19th century in America, patent medicines were non-regulated goods that a druggist or chemist would sell to the public claiming (mostly false) cures for common illnesses.  Dr. Buker’s Root and Herb Beer promised to be “a purifier of the blood” and “a stimulator of the digestive organs.”

Trade card for Allen's Root Beer Extract

Dr. Buker's Root and Herb Beer
advertising flyer.
Bryant’s Root Beer was used as “a general stimulant” and “a nerve tonic.”  Allen’s Root Beer Extract claimed not only to act “upon the Kidneys and Liver,” but to furnish “the most valuable elements of nutrition.” The unfounded claims of root beer producers demonstrate an attempt to profit from the budding consumer culture.

Bryant's Root Beer trade card.
Bryant's Root Beer trade card. Verso of card above.
Trade card for Raser's Root Beer Extract.

Similarly, Raser’s Root Beer believed in their product enough to warn their buyers to “Beware of worthless imitations.” Ironically, Raser’s root beer itself is an imitation of medicine, despite offering no proof of its promise as a “nerve strengthening beverage.” The advertisements never stated what ingredients of the root beer made it “nerve strengthening,” making the words dubious at best.  Questionable descriptions and claims such as these led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 passed by President Theodore Roosevelt, partly in an attempt to weed out false claims and misleading information.  The root beer trade cards in the Warshaw Collection of Business Americana are a minuscule part of Warshaw’s collection, but they tell a story of America’s early days of modern advertising.

-- Halle Mares, Intern,
Archives Center,
National Museum of American History

All images shown here are from items in the "Beverages" series, ca. 1880-1920, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

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