President Calvin Coolidge celebrated his inauguration with a cold Moxie. Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams was a spokesman for it. Deer Isle author 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 was a Civil War veteran who, after the war, enrolled in the Hahnemann Homeopathic College (now Drexel University School of Medicine) in Philadelphia.
After graduating first in his class, Thompson He settled in Lowell, Mass., and set up a flourishing medical practice. It was one of New England’s largest. Thompson was earning $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,’ tlavored by the bitter Gentian root. He claimed the root had medicinal qualities, effective against paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia. Thompson 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, Lt. Moxie never existed.
At first, Moxie 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.
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, Moxie’s fortunes were revived by Mad Magazine, which started placing Moxie logos on its pages. The makers of Moxie were surprised to see their sales increase by 10 percent. For the next few decades, financial problems continued to plague Moxie as it was bought and sold by various companies.
Moxie is now owned by Kirin Holdings of Japan. And yet it is celebrated as a local tradition and continues to be popular in New England: there is a Moxie museum in Union that houses a 30-foot-tall wooden Moxie bottle, 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.