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creator of the first commercially produced root beer
Charles Elmer Hires was born on a farm in Elsinboro, New Jersey, on August 19, 1851, the sixth of ten children born to John and Mary (Williams) Hires. He received very little formal education and held his first job before he reached his teens.
Hires was only 12 years old when he went to work at a local pharmacy. Intrigued by the profession, he moved to Philadelphia four years later to take a similar job. By 1867, Hires was working at a wholesale drug house while attending night classes at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and the Jefferson Medical College. He then moved to Bridgeton, Pennsylvania, where he helped operate a local pharmacy in partnership with two other men. The venture was short-lived, however, and Hires soon moved back to Philadelphia. In December 1869, he borrowed some money and opened his own pharmacy.
Soon after opening his pharmacy, Hires happened across some workmen digging the foundation for a building. The workmen had come across a type of clay known as Fuller's earth that was popularly used for removing grease spots from wool clothing. Recognizing the financial potential of the find, Hires arranged to have a large amount of the soil brought to his house and dumped in his cellar, where he and a helper shaped it into cakes and packaged it as "Hires Special Cleaner." Sales of his product to local wholesale drug houses ultimately netted him $6,000, which he used to pay off all of his debts.
In 1875 Hires married Clara Kate Smith, with whom he would have five children -- Charles Jr., Harrison, John Edgar, Linda, and Clara.
Hires and his new wife were honeymooning at a New Jersey boarding farm when they tasted the landlady's special pie mixture made of sassafras bark, wintergreen, sarsaparilla root, hops, juniper berries, pipsissewa, and other herbs. Hires liked the mixture so much that he got the recipe from the landlady and, after returning home, began experimenting with it. He finally ended up with a powder that produced a sweet drink when mixed with water, sugar, and yeast. He then began selling the powder as "Hires Herb Tea," in both his own pharmacy and to other pharmacists. Although it sold fairly well, it was the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition that made it a sensation.
According to company tradition, Hires changed the name of his drink mix after Dr. Russel H. Conwell, a minister, author, and founder of Temple University, said that Pennsylvania coal miners would never drink herb tea but they would drink something with "beer" in its name. On the basis of this advice, Hires Herb Tea became Hires Root Beer before being introduced at the Centennial Exhibition. The success of Hires Root Beer at the Exhibition prompted Hires to begin selling it outside the area through pharmacy soda fountains and as a mix to be brewed at home. Before long people across the country were buying the 25-cent Hires Root Beer Kit, which contained enough concentrate to make 5 gallons of root beer. Despite the success of the home kits, Hires decided in 1884 that he could sell more root beer if people didn't have to brew it, so he developed a liquid concentrate form. The Charles E Hires Company was established in 1890, and Hires Root Beer in convenient pre-mixed bottles was introduced in 1893.
To build awareness, Hires became the first U.S. businessman to aggressively advertise his product, and he was the first person to purchase a color advertisement on the back page of the Ladies' Home Journal.
Clara Hires died in 1910. In 1911 Charles married Emma Waln, who survived him. Charles Hires remained active in the business until his son Charles Jr. took the reins in 1925. He died of a stroke at his home in Haverford, Pennsylvania, on July 31, 1937, and is buried in Westminster Cemetery near Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
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This page was last updated on May 15, 2018.