President Calvin Coolidge celebrated his inauguration with a cold one. Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams was a spokesman for it. E. B. White wrote, “Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life.”
New England has always embraced the oddly medicinal soft drink since the late 19th century. Other parts of the country haven’t always understood its bitter but sweet appeal. Perhaps it’s the Puritan influence.
Moxie was invented as a ‘nerve food’ by Augustin Thompson, born in Union, Maine, on Nov. 25, 1835. Thompson, a Civil War veteran, after the war enrolled in the Hahnemann Homeopathic College (now Drexel University School of Medicine) in Philadelphia.
After graduating first in his class, Thompson settled in Lowell, Mass. He then set up a flourishing medical practice, one of New England’s largest. Thompson earned $15,000 a year, a considerable sum in those days.
Lowell at the time was home to the Ayer Drug Co., the world’s largest patent medicine factory, owned by James Cook Ayer.
In 1884, Thompson started selling “Moxie Nerve Food,” flavored by the bitter Gentian root. He claimed the root had medicinal qualities, effective against paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia. Thompson then sold it in bottles and in bulk as a soda fountain syrup as “a delicious blend of bitter and sweet, a drink to satisfy everyone’s taste.”
According to legend, Dr. Thompson named the drink after his friend, Lt. Moxie, who had discovered the root in South America and used it to cure his ills. In reality, the lieutenant never existed.
At first, the beverage caught on in New England, but not elsewhere. In the 1920s, aggressive marketing pushed Moxie sales past Coca-Cola. Show biz personalities like George M. Cohan, Ed Wynn and Ann Pennington promoted it. A huge factory and warehouse called “Moxieland” opened in Roxbury, and another plant opened in New York City.
In 1911, the Moxie Boy came into existence.
The company created the logo then, and it has appeared in different colors and styles since then.
An advertisement from 1922 noted, “In almost every town and city in the United States there is someone who believes they know the original of the Moxie Boy. In view of the many thousands of different opinions on this subject, we may offer a prize to the person who picks the actual boy, furnishing us photographic proofs, etc.
The company apparently never awarded the prize. Some believe he was John T. Chamberlain of Revere, Mass. He posed for the ad while working for the lithographer that printed it.
The company suffered during the Depression and continued to struggle for the next three decades. A decision to make it sweeter proved disastrous.
In 1962, the soft drink’s fortunes were revived by Mad Magazine, which started placing Moxie logos on its pages. The manufacturers were surprised to see their sales increase by 10 percent. But for the next few decades, financial problems continued to plague the company as it kept getting bought and sold.
Kirin Holdings of Japan now owns Moxie. And yet it is celebrated as a local tradition and continues to be popular in New England. Union, Maine, has a Moxie museum that houses a 30-foot-tall wooden bottle of the stuff. It’s an annex to the Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage. “All things Moxie” are celebrated at the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and in 2005 the State of Maine made Moxie its official state soft drink.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: “Never Sticky Sweet” by liz west via Flickr CC By 2.0.