America’s oldest bottled soft drink, Moxie, was invented right here in New England. Today, it has its own fan club.
Not long ago, out of curiosity, I stopped at the Williamsburg General Store on Route 9 in Williamsburg, Massachusetts. What caught my eye in that riot of scented soaps, ice cream, gewgaws, old-fashioned candy, and New England crafts (some actually from New England) was an orange can behind the glass door of the refrigerator case: a can of Moxie.
I hadn’t tasted, or seen, that soda in a decade. Moxie is a drink I associate with my grandfather, Dr. William Shavelson, who practiced medicine in Revere, Massachusetts from the mid-1920s until the mid-’70s. He is the only person I remember who drank Moxie regularly and voluntarily. Was it because he was a doctor, or because I couldn’t stand the bitter stuff as a child, that I assumed it must have medicinal roots?
I call Merrill Lewis, a retired Carrier air-conditioner engineer from Manchester, New Hampshire, who is president of the New England Moxie Congress, a fan club with 250 to 300 members. The drink did have medicinal roots, Lewis confirms, and gentian root is its distinctive ingredient. “Moxie was invented in 1885 by Dr. Augustin Thompson of Union, Maine,” he says. “It is the nation’s oldest bottled soft drink and it is still sort of, kind of, going strong.”
Moxie was originally produced in Lowell, Massachusetts, and then from the twenties until the forties, in Moxieland, a former brewery complex in Boston’s Roxbury section. Today the brand is owned by the Moxie Beverage Company of Bedford, New Hampshire, a division of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England.
Lewis pointed me to a nineteenth-century Moxie bottle label on which the drink was called “nerve food,” promised to strengthen and invigorate users, and even help with “loss of manhood, imbecility, and helplessness.” At its peak in the 1920s, Moxie was said to outsell Coca-Cola, though that’s hard to verify. Certainly, its success had something to do with its oddball promotion: there was the mechanical Moxie horse on an auto chassis, the giant Moxie bottle with the vendor inside, the Moxie Boy logo, and later endorsements from movie stars and Ted Williams. In August 1923, after Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office in Plymouth, Vermont upon the death of President Harding, he steadied himself with a glass of Moxie.
While Moxie has suffered near-death experiences for generations, its admirers and renown seem to be growing. The Moxie Congress, established in 1991, was instrumental in the 2009 creation of the Moxie wing of the Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage in Union, Maine. (Moxie is Maine’s official soft drink.) “The centerpiece,” says Lewis, “is a thirty-three–foot Moxie bottle, which used to be a refreshment stand.” Naturally, the Congress plays a big role in Lisbon, Maine’s annual Moxie Festival, which will be held this year from July 7-9.
I ask Lewis if there’s something that makes Moxie a particularly New England beverage. “New Englanders are a hearty bunch,” he says, “and they show no signs of pain. It takes a lot of moxie to drink it.”