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Hires, Charles Elmer - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details

drink philadelphia beer root

(1851-1937)
Hires Root Beer

Overview

Charles Elmer Hires, who developed a beverage he called “root beer” in 1875, was the first soft drink entrepreneur. His company paved the way for giants such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A Philadelphia-based pharmacist by profession, Hires was only 24 when he created his world-famous concoction, which he originally sold as dry concentrate that needed to be mixed with water and several other ingredients. He later went on to develop a second successful business as a noted manufacturer of condensed milk.

Personal Life

Charles Elmer Hires was born on August 19, 1851, on his family’s farm outside of Roadstown, New Jersey. He was the sixth of 10 children of John Dare Hires and Mary (Williams) Hires, who counted among her ancestors Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington. Despite such distinguished ties, the Hires family was not a wealthy one. Young Charles had very little formal education and held his first job before he reached his teens.

Hires was married twice, first to Clara Kate Smith in 1875 and then, following her death in 1910, to Emma Waln in 1911. He had two daughters and three sons, one of whom, Harrison Streater Hires, served as vice president of Charles E. Hires Company from 1923 to 1948.

Hires was a Republican and a devout Quaker who financed the restoration of the Merion Meeting House in Merion, Pennsylvania, where William Penn had worshipped. He even wrote a book about the project entitled A Short Historical Sketch of the Merion Meeting House (1917). Hires died of a stroke on July 31, 1937, at his home in Haverford, Pennsylvania, while preparing to leave for a fishing trip. He is buried in Westminster Cemetery near Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

Career Details

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 headed to the town of 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, at the age of only 18, he borrowed some money and opened his own pharmacy.

Not long after launching his business, Hires happened to make a fortunate discovery. Workmen in his neighborhood were digging the foundation for a building when they came across a strange-looking, clayish type of soil. Hires knew that this material was “fuller’s earth,” a popular item at the time for removing grease spots from wool clothing. He arranged to have a large amount of the unusual clay brought to his house and dumped into his cellar, where he and a helper shaped it into cakes and packaged it as “Hires Special Cleaner.” He then sold his product to wholesale drug houses and managed to earn $6,000, a fairly substantial sum of money in those days. The success of Hires Special Cleaner enabled the young pharmacist to pay off all of his debts.

In 1875, Hires and his bride were honeymooning at a New Jersey boarding farm when they tasted the land-lady’s special pie mixture of sassafras bark, wintergreen, sarsaparilla root, hops, juniper berries, pipsissewa, and other herbs. Hires returned home with the recipe for this sweet concoction and soon began experimenting with it. Assisted by two medical college professors, he was able to develop and then market a dry concentrate of the recipe that could be mixed with water, sugar, and yeast to produce a sweet drink.

As was common practice at that time, Hires sold his soft drink not merely as a refreshing drink but as a sort of medicine. It also represented a morally upright alternative to beer and liquor, an important plus lending to the strong anti-alcohol sentiments that were then sweeping the nation. In fact, Hires originally planned to market his product as “Hires Herb Tea” but changed his mind after receiving a piece of invaluable business advice from a friend, Dr. Russell H. Conwell. A minister, author, and founder of Philadelphia’s Temple University, Conwell reportedly told Hires that tough Pennsylvania coal miners would never drink herb tea, but they would drink something with “beer” in the name. On the basis of this suggestion, Hires named his concentrated mix “root beer.”

Hires introduced the new concoction in 1876 at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was a great success, prompting him to start selling it outside the local area through pharmacy soda fountains or as a mix to be brewed at home. Before long, customers were able to purchase 25-cent packages of the concentrate, enough to make 5 gallons of root beer. By the early 1880s, Hires began selling three-ounce bottles of root beer in liquid form. He advertised heavily in local newspapers like the Philadelphia Public Ledger and quickly created a booming market for his product.

Realizing that root beer’s appeal could easily extend beyond the Philadelphia area, Hires decided to promote his drink to a nationwide clientele. He thus became the first person to purchase a color advertisement on the back page of the Ladies’ Home Journal. (At the time, Coca-Cola was barely known outside its hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.) Hires Root Beer soon became America’s soft drink.

Hirshberg, Gary - President and Chief Executive Officer of Stonyfield Farm, Career, Sidelights [next] [back] Hippocrates (of Cos)

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almost 7 years ago

who is the editor of this site

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over 4 years ago

Hello,
Charles Hires' youngest son, Charles Hires, Jr., later succeeded him as president. Charles Jr.'s youngest son, Peter vZ. Hires in turn succeeded him before the company was acquired outright.

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almost 6 years ago

Charles was 1 out of 2 childern. hires company had his first competior in 1919 by a more famous rootbeer company, A&W!!!!

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over 4 years ago

I used to drink hire's root beer as a child in Philadelphia, PA, from 50's to middle 60's. It's not now available for sale. Its brand is owned by Dr. Pepper/Snapple beverages in Plano, Texas. They are promoting A & W root beer--which they also own. Frito-Lay/PepsiCo is also headquartered in Plano, Texas!

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over 5 years ago

wow, my S.A. is on this boring man!

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almost 6 years ago

Charles was 1 out of 2 childern. hires company had his first competior in 1919 by a more famous rootbeer company, A&W!!!!

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over 2 years ago

hi

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about 4 years ago

Hi to Peter Hires in Florida