Today in History - May 16
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1866
On May 16, 1866, drugstore owner Charles Elmer Hires formulated the first concoction of the eponymous Hires Root Beer, the first commercially available “root beer”. Modern formulations of root beer can be significantly different in terms of ingredients used (notably, sassafras root oil is carcinogenic, so it’s generally not used anymore, though sassafras flavoring still is), but the biting taste, fermented nature, and carbonation are considered universal traits of true root beer.
The beverage didn’t achieve much initial success, but Dr. Russell Conwell convinced Charles Hires to present it at the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was advertised as a temperance drink, an alternative to alcoholic beer, as well as “the greatest health-giving beverage in the world”. Hires would eventually go on to become a multimillionaire by selling boxes of dry ingredients for his root beer - just add water, sugar, and yeast, and sell by the glass from the jerk fountain.
More on Root Beer:
Simple instructions to make root beer at home!
Charles E. Hires Company, 1870-Present [pdf]
Historical Society of Pennsylvania
History of Gourmet Root Beer