by Judy Weaver-Gonyeau, managing editor
Courage. Pluck. Perseverance. … Moxie. A little bit sweet, a little bit bitter. What some would call an “acquired taste.” Who knew this aptly named “Nerve Food” would become more popular than Coca-Cola?
Where Did That Drink Come From?
Augustin Thompson (Union, Maine 1835-1903), a decorated Civil War veteran turned physician, attained his degree from the Hahnemann Homeopathia College, graduating with honors. With a focus on holistic medicine, Thompson’s practice grew so fast that by 1885, it boasted one of the largest patient lists in New England.
As different drinks with “medicinal properties” were introduced to the market from a variety of “experts,” Thompson’s wanted to produce his own medicinal drink that did not contain harmful ingredients sometimes used in other drinks, such as cocaine, arsenic, and alcohol. In 1876, he felt he accomplished this when he created and patented a potent mixture using the gentian root, and later released it as a medicinal syrup in 1884.
In Volume 1 of The Moxie Encyclopedia, Thompson is quoted as saying, “I found it cured anything caused by nervous exhaustion. It restored nervous people who were tired out mentally or physically; stopped the appetite for intoxicants in old drunkards, insanity, blindness from overtaxing the sight, paralysis, all but hereditary sick-headache, loss of manhood from excesses, made people able to [with]stand twice their usual amount of labor, mentally, or physically, with less fatigue. It cured two cases of softening of the brain and recovered helpless limbs. I found it to be neither medicine nor stimulant, but a nerve food, and harmless as milk.” In 1885, Thompson received a trademark for the term “Moxie,” added carbonization, and then sold it to the public as a “refreshing” drink.
Because of Thompson’s well-known reputation as a good physician and his popularity across New England, Moxie Nerve Tonic became a quick success, selling over five million bottles during its first year. Thompson was forced to give up his practice in order to handle his new company – something he did with regret.
What Is In It?
There were several different stories (or “Tall Tales”) floating around regarding the ingredients used to create Moxie. By many accounts, it was told that Dr. Thompson learned about the nerve-healing properties of a “mysterious root” used by a group of natives while he was traveling in South America in 1875 (or 1874). Thompson is then said to have brought it back to the U.S. following his adventures.
Another account speaks about Thompson’s blending of two secret ingredients gathered from a Native American tribe in Maine.
However, it was later determined that the mysterious root was actually the gentian root, a fairly common substance that was used in tonics dating as far back as 170 B.C.
What a Name!
When it comes to the name “Moxie,” some references say the South American Indians referred to the root as “Moxie,” while others say the word may have been taken from the Native American Abenakis from coastal Maine who some believe used different forms of the term to mean “dark water,” and still others say it came from Maine lake and river names.
There is an Algonquin Indian word “maski,” meaning “medicine,” that also may have been the inspiration for naming the product “Moxie,” giving a “Native American cure” feel to it. Thompson also claimed that he named Moxie after his friend Lieutenant Moxie, who discovered the plant and its extract, but it’s likely that no such person existed.
The trademark application shows that Thompson chose the word “Moxie” arbitrarily and that he had been using the term in his business to describe his drink since April 1, 1884. While Moxie collectors later debated whether the drink originated in 1884 or 1885, those who marketed the drink—at least from the 1940s onward—state that Moxie had been around since 1884.
Moxie Nerve Food
In 1889, Thompson wanted to resume his medical practice full-time. He worked out an agreement with one of his agents in upstate New York and established The Moxie Nerve Food Company. Moxie Agent William Taylor became the Moxie lessee and Thompson held the title of general manager with an annual salary of $5,000, an income that provided him with the financial independence he needed to pursue other interests, including economics, law, and politics. Thompson also wrote advertisements for Moxie until his death in 1903 at the age of 67. His son Francis then assumed the role of president of Moxie.
Up to that time, Moxie Nerve Food had established its name and purpose through a lot of advertising – from the labeling on the bottle to the name on the manufacturing facility, and the promotional wagons making deliveries to the hundreds of newspaper ads. Some ads were written in languages other than English to reach the thousands of immigrants arriving in the U.S. at the time. The heavy promotion of both the drink and its distinctive name continued well into the 20th century.
Just three years after Dr. Thompson died in 1903, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was established as a federal agency. With it came new regulations such as listing ingredients on the product, along with having to lose some of the “cure-all” language. This drove the company to officially change the name and packaging, calling it simply “Moxie,” and marketing it as a soft drink for people with discerning tastes.
Frank Archer: Moxie’s Marketing Guru
Switching gears from “nerve tonic” to “soft drink” meant changing the story of Moxie to something that would prove to be energetic and on the move. Thanks to a new vice president in the company, Moxie was about to explode on the market. Moxie had become the first bottled, carbonated beverage in the U.S., and in the 1920s, Moxie surpassed its slightly younger competitor, Coca-Cola, in sales.
Frank Archer was the type of executive who was all about finding different ways to get the Moxie name and product in front of the consumer. Archer was also a fan of using catchy phrases to help build recognition of the name “Moxie.” A few examples include “What the country needs is plenty of Moxie,” “Moxie: It’s a drink for those who are at all particular,” “Cools, refreshes, and feeds the nerves,” “Moxie Nerve Food: the warm weather food drink,” and its most popular tagline, “Make it Moxie for Mine.” The name’s perceived personality was just as popular as the beverage and became synonymous with spunk, pep, courage, and “building up your nerve.” It even became a noun in American dictionaries!
Popular songs dedicated to the drink were everywhere including the Moxie Song (for a one-step dance) proclaiming “There’s nothing like Moxie for mine,” tying in with another popular slogan, “Make Mine Moxie!”
Celebrity endorsements were given by Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and Calvin Coolidge. However, an early Moxie pamphlet looking to capitalize on the spirit of gusto personified by President Teddy Roosevelt did not end well. A series of advertisements and booklets dared to show an endorsement story that included Teddy Roosevelt as a fan and supporter. That did not go over well with the White House, and the ad series and handouts were quickly discontinued and destroyed. (They do, however, make a great collectible today.)
Some Unusual Marketing Tactics
Gimmicks were often used to attract the attention of the public. Here are just a few examples of the special promotions that kept the name Moxie in the public eye:
The Giant Moxie Bottles
When the Massachusetts Retail Grocers and Provision Dealers’ Association put together a Food Fair open to the public at Mechanics Hall, Moxie made its move. Construction of a 32-foot high Moxie Bottle (with a 10-foot diameter) began with the intent to use it as a traveling promotional item. The Bottle was a replica of the actual Moxie Nerve Tonic Bottle and featured its heavily-copywritten label and bottlecap. Constructed of oak, spruce, and New England pinewood, doors and windows were used to hand out samples of Moxie to passersby. The Boston Traveler wrote that the Bottle was a “monument to nerve building – a striking feature of the big Food Fair.”
This first Moxie Bottle hit the road at attractions throughout the Northeast, including at Luna Park in Coney Island, and later rested at the Pine Island Amusement Park in Manchester, New Hampshire. The occasional adventurous visitor could enter the Bottle and climb all the way up to a window that looked out at Mount Uncanoonuc, and then slide back down to the base on a slide placed on the exterior of the bottle. It was there for over ten years. The Bottle was repainted at least once and the label was updated when the name changed “Moxie.”
Following the War, a giant Moxie bottle was purchased by a couple who then added it onto their house. It continued to attract attention and many visitors until the 1980s when the property was abandoned. Today, the Bottle House is at the Union, ME Fairgrounds, and is open in the summer to visitors. A full restoration is in process.
The Moxie Man/Guy/Boy
The Moxie Man/Guy made his debut in 1906 in a pose that is reminiscent of the “I Want You” Uncle Sam Army posters used to recruit men during World Wars I and II. He would become one of the most recognized promotional icons of all time. But who was he? Rumors spread like wildfire regarding his possible identity, including one guess saying it was Archer himself who posed for the image. Given his age at the time (50+) that appeared unlikely. Said Archer, “in almost every town and city in the United States there is someone who believes they know the original 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 Moxie Boy, now a man (and some man at that), who posed for this picture many, many years ago, in fact before some of the readers of this article were born.”
The Moxie Congress, a group of historians dedicated to the history of Moxie, was able to ascertain that the man was likely an on-call model for the lithographers printing these advertisements and, with confidence, it is thought that the “Moxie Boy” was one John T. Chamberlain of Revere, MA.
Looking to stay current, in the early 1960s, the Moxie Guy was tweaked to look a bit more like Frank Sinatra and the focus returned to promoting Moxie as “healthful” by putting the gentian root back in the foreground. Then in 2010, the image was thought too “old fashioned,” and the Moxie Guy was removed from the company label in 2010, only to be reinstated one year later following numerous complaints from long-standing customers.
The Moxie Horsemobiles
Back around 1918, Archer used the increasing popularity of the automobile as an element in one of his most popular gimmicks, the Moxie Horsemobile. A Moxiemobile consisted of a fake horse mounted on a car. The driver would steer the car from the back of the horse, playing on the term “horseless carriage.” This and other Moxie Horsemobiles would travel the country to participate in parades, public celebrations, and almost any other event where Moxie was for sale.
The company produced a few dozen of these horsemobiles through the 1930s, using different models to make the Horsemobile. Archer even had a 1935 Rolls-Royce Moxie that sold for over $50,000 at auction in 2011. In 2021, a 1929 Ford Model “A” Moxie Horsemobile sold for $61,290 at auction. The cars used tended to be of a higher grade and included a 1931 La Salle, and a Buick Series K, and there are rumors of a Pierce-Arrow used to build a Moxie Horsemobile.
Moxie Marches On
Moxie was designated as the official soft drink of the State of Maine in 2005, as signed into law by Governor John Baldacci. It is a favorite of New Englanders who continue to demand their Moxie.
In 2018, Coca-Cola acquired Moxie from its bottling partner, the Kirin-owned Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, but keeping up with “who owned Moxie when” can be confusing. According to New England Today, “Since 2007, Moxie had been owned by Bedford, NH-based Cornucopia Beverages, who, starting in 2011, also did business as the Moxie Beverage Company. Cornucopia is owned by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Northern New England (not directly affiliated with The Coca-Cola Co.), which is a subsidiary of Kirin Brewing Company, whose parent company, Tokyo-based Kirin Holdings Company, Ltd., is part of the Mitsubishi business group. … To their credit, Coke’s early statements about their new acquisition emphasized the importance of Moxie’s regional footprint, and confirmed the brand’s production and bottling operations will remain in New Hampshire.”
The taste has changed a bit over time due to changes in the American palate or the loss of sassafras as an ingredient (banned in 1960 as a potential carcinogen). Another reason could be the switch from sugar to high-fructose corn syrup.
But nothing can keep this soft drink down! Fans continue to celebrate with Moxie wherever they may be!