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An email arrived here the other day from someone who wondered if I knew anything about the soft drink Moxie, that so many people in Maine seem to talk about a lot. My answer follows.
Maine’s own Moxie – Maine’s official soft drink - was the first mass-marketed soft drink in our country, arriving on the scene long before Pepsi or Coke.
One Moxie story claims that after the Civil War, a Lieutenant Moxie went down to the vast unexplored jungles of South America and, while poking around near the Straights of Magellan, discovered a starchy plant known to the locals to have great powers, giving “durable and vigorous feelings.” This same Lt. Moxie returned to the United States and used the magical plant as the main ingredient in his new health tonic – Moxie.
Great story, but no one has ever documented that anyone named Lt. Moxie fought, or even prepared meals for either side in our Civil War. Besides that, no scientific reference has ever been published on any South American starchy plant that supposedly had medicinal properties.
So much for that particular Moxie legend. But if it’s not to your liking, don’t worry. Over the last century, the Moxie people have unearthed many stories about the products origin.
Typical of all tonics of the age, the makers of Moxie claimed that its product could cure almost anything, including paralysis, nervous exhaustion, softening of the brain, insanity, and what people at the time delicately referred to as “loss of manhood.” As a nostrum or tonic, or quack medicine, Moxie was originally dispensed a spoonful at a time. It was first marketed as a patent medicine in Lowell Massachusetts around 1876.
But Moxie does have a Maine connection. In 1884, Dr. Augustin Thompson of Union changed Moxie to take advantage of the growing soft drink market.
The tonic became known as “Beverage Moxie – Nerve Food.” Later, that was changed to: “Moxie: It’s Pretty Nasty,” or something similar.
From the turn of the century until the 1920s, Moxie was America’s most popular soft drink. Not surprisingly, it was President Calvin – “Silent Cal” Coolidge’s favorite beverage.
Many people think Moxie’s biggest problem is that it tastes like crankcase oil that’s been in the crankcase for 100,000 miles. They say it was originally very bitter and medicinal-tasting, but I can’t imagine anything tasting worse than today’s Moxie. The primary ingredient is said to be extract of gentian root. Another ingredient is wintergreen, an herb that was known as “moxie” when the formula was first concocted. Other claims to the name Moxie come from our state’s Moxie Falls, Moxie Cave, Moxie Pond, Moxie stream, Moxie Lake, East Moxie Township, Moxie Gore, moxie berries and Moxie plums.
Many early quack medicines , including the original Coca-Cola, had cocaine as a beneficial. Some speculate that Moxie also once included cocaine to cure nervous exhaustion and that “loss of manhood” condition. In 1906, the Food and Drug Act outlawed cocaine. The formula then changed. In the 1960s, the FDA ruled that sassafras may cause cancer, and outlawed its use in food. So, Moxie change its formula again.
Today, it is said that moxie is flavored primarily with extracts of gentian root and wintergreen. Although it now lacks cocaine and sassafras, experts say Moxie tastes pretty much the way it did in the good old days, which some insist is a good thing.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at mainestoryteller@yahoo.com or 899-1868.
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