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The Moxie machine: Soda's heavy marketing created a trove of memorabilia

Union Leader Correspondent

September 07. 2018 6:21PM
Q. David Bowers of Wolfeboro sits astride the last surviving Moxie Horsemobile at Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln. Bowers, a recognized expert in Moxie memorabilia, is co-owner of the unique vehicle. (COURTESY)

WOLFEBORO -- The quintessential spirit of Moxie is not easily defined, but sit down with Q. David Bowers and you'll find a good approximation - an effervescent personality whose sharp mind is as "decidedly different" as his favorite soda advertises.

The author of more than 50 books - many on coins, not to overlook his three-volume "History of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire" - Bowers combines his business acumen, his tenacity as a researcher and his love of language in producing works that become recognized as standards references in their field including "The Moxie Encyclopedia."

Bowers says his interest in Moxie memorabilia was sparked by Eddie Clark of Clark's Trading Post in Lincoln in the early 1970s, although he had acquired a few hand fans emblazoned with Moxie girls and other collectibles about a decade earlier.

Moxie was unique among beverages of the early 20th century, Bowers says. He credits company vice president Frank Archer, who, while making generous profits for stockholders, spent much of his time entertaining the public and creating ingenious Moxie advertising items that people enjoyed.

In an era before union laws protected workers, Archer stood out from his contemporaries, who were prone to driving their help to the limit, Bowers says. Archer called his employees "associates" who enjoyed perks like a full day of pay to go Christmas shopping.

Endearing him to his employees spread good will and when coupled with an aggressive and creative ad campaign Archer helped Moxie become a household word.

Among the first mass-produced carbonated soft drinks in the United States, Moxie remains a New England classic with a loyal following.

"It has a personality. You felt like you belonged to Moxie. It has a cult like following like no other beverage outside of perhaps Dom Perignon champagne," Bowers said, likening its fan base to being part of a specialty club with a shared interest.

"There is really nothing to compare it to. It's not a cola, and it's not a root beer; it's its own little niche," current Moxie brand manager Justin Conroy told the Union Leader recently.

Bowers' book recounts the story of the old-time soft drink and the interesting cast of characters who helped make its name part of the American lexicon.

Moxie originated as a patent medicine known as "Moxie Nerve Food," which was created around 1885 by Dr. Augustin Thompson in Lowell, Mass. Born in Union, Maine, Thompson was a Civil War hero and a homeopathic physician.

He wanted to make a cure-all patent medicine that contained no harmful ingredients. He claimed its base ingredient was an extract from a rare, proprietary South American plant, now known to be gentian root.

As a result of widespread advertising, Moxie's name became a synonym for courage, daring or determination. During the war years, the company went patriotic, exhorting, "What this county needs is plenty of Moxie." Soldiers and civilians were urged to use the invigorating taste of Moxie to overcome enemy threats, endure air raids, till victory gardens, and collect scrap metal to support the war effort.

Bowers said storekeepers found that posting a Moxie Boy sign with his piercing blue eyes and pointing finger near their displays of fruits and vegetables cut down on pilferage.

In 1923, President Warren Harding suffered a heart attack and died in San Francisco during a western speaking tour. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his family in Plymouth, Vt., and his father, a notary, swore him in as President. Coolidge is said to have celebrated with a cold glass of Moxie.

In its heyday in the late 1920s,the company created "Moxieland," a huge manufacturing and distribution facility in Roxbury, Mass., opened a second plant in New York City and began franchising for independent bottlers.

Many innovative advertising gimmicks, such as three- and six-pack carry bags, bottle stoppers and openers, and even sheet music and phonograph records of the Moxie fox trot hit the streets, spurring sales.

Manchester's own Pine Island Park amusement park was home to a 32-foot-tall bottle-shaped "Moxie House" that had a window on the ground floor level that from which the temperance-tonic was dispensed.

In the 1950s, Red Sox baseball legend Ted Williams was signed as a Moxie spokesman. "Ted's Root Beer" was branded as a separate Moxie product.

In the 1960s, Mad Magazine inexplicably added tiny Moxie signs into many of its cartoon strips sparking an unexpected surge in sales and introducing a new generation to the soft drink. In 2005, Maine named Moxie its official state soft drink.

After the company was sold to Monarch Beverage Company in Georgia, company officials contacted Bowers to ask whether he would be interested in buying some Moxie memorabilia. He was able to negotiate the purchase of the original scrapbooks and advertisements first kept by Dr. Thompson and company successors, as well as original business records and even the 1885 patent.

He also teamed up with Ben Clark, and Clark's sister, Jennifer, to jointly acquire ownership of the last surviving original Moxie Horsemobile, built on a modified 1929 LaSalle chassis.

The Moxie Horsemobile became one of the most famous mobile advertising devices in America. When it was built, the appearance of an automobile on city streets was as unusual as encountering a horse there would be today. The scrapbooks bulge with clippings about its appearances, including accounts of a match race with a live thoroughbred.

Bowers donated the Moxie records to the Moxie Museum wing of the Matthews Museum, in Union, Maine the hometown of the company's founder, Dr. Thompson. The Moxie House from Pine Island Park can also be found at the museum.

Recently acquired by Coca-Cola Company for an undisclosed sum from Bedford-based Coca-Cola of Northern New England, Moxie will still be produced, and the distribution footprint won't change under the new ownership.

"Moxie once outsold Coke in New England," Bowers said of the sale. "It's like Ford buying Chevrolet."

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