Eagle Feathers #1 – Something to Root For!
By Bob (Monty) Doherty
Summer is here, so grab a cold beer! Root beer, that is. You are probably aware that root beer is not truly a “beer” in the way that most people today think of “beer”, which is the world’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage. So why is the word “beer” part of the name of a soft drink? The answer can be traced back to one of our former Somerville residents. While there are various accounts regarding root beer’s etymology, the most popular belief is the story of a young Philadelphian pharmacist named Charles Hires and his friend Russell Conwell. Conwell, a Somerville resident, was the founder of Temple University and father of Leon Conwell, the nineteenth mayor of Somerville. Conwell Avenue, Conwell Street and the former Conwell School are all named after the pair.
According to Hires’ August 2, 1937 obituary, Conwell requested that his friend develop a drink that would appeal to the rough and tumble Pennsylvania miners. The drink would be a substitute for alcohol to appease the Temperance Movement members. Hires did as his friend asked, and Conwell was very pleased when Hires returned with a beverage that he referred to as “herbal tea.” Because Conwell intended the product to be marketed to the tough and laborious miners, he advised against the name “herbal tea.” Conwell suggested that the name be changed to “root beer,” which he believed was more appropriate for their target demographic. In 1876, “root beer” was introduced to the world at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Today people continue to enjoy Hires Root beer all over the world. So the next time you raise a non-alcoholic toast, you can toast to Russell Conwell.
If you have a historical question you would like answered by Historian Bob Doherty, email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org