Bill Double's New Book Details the Story Behind Hires Root Beer

"Charles E. Hires and the Drink That Wowed a Nation” is an ode to the pioneering Main Line soft drink.

A collection of treasured memorabilia at the Haverford home of Karen Hires, widow of grandson William. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.

Newspapers can be kind to businesses—or not. The Hires family learned that in the heyday of the Public Ledger. The paper was co-owned by fellow Main Liners George W. Childs and J. Anthony Drexel, who, in 1880, purchased 300 acres, calling it the Wayne Estate. Soft drink pioneer Charles Hires couldn’t afford to advertise in the Ledger at the time, so Childs offered to withhold any invoices until he could, and Hires began running a small ad in 1877.

After six months, Hires asked for the bill—$700—and his profits went right back into paying it. Childs had tasted Hires Root Beer at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It turns out he was right about two things: the value of advertising and the product’s viability.

That’s just one of the stories unveiled in Bill Double’s Charles E. Hires and the Drink That Wowed a Nation: The Life and Times of a Philadelphia Entrepreneur, a new book published by Temple University Press. “Advertising put him on the map,” says Double, a Center City-based author. “He advertised in a way that few companies had up to that time, and he paved the way for the soft drink industry 10 years ahead of Coca-Cola. He had the tenacity to stick with it, and sales took off.”

Through his research for the book, Double discovered that, by the late 1880s, Hires was spending $500,000 a year on ads—an astronomical sum in the day. This despite the fact that the Ledger all but buried his son, Charles E. Hires Jr. While at Haverford College, the star halfback required eight hours of surgery to repair a spleen ruptured in a game at Lehigh University. A premature death announcement appeared in the Ledger, the news finding its way around the country. But Charles Jr. survived, graduating with honors and joining his father’s company after graduation in 1913. He’d be president by 1925.

“He advertised in a way that few companies had up to that time, and he paved the way for the soft drink industry 10 years ahead of Coca-Cola. He had the tenacity to stick with it, and sales took off.”

The Hires family has a long relationship with our area, beginning at a time when the Main Line was fast becoming a “semi-pastoral” escape for “a bastion of Philadelphia’s elite families” who had “the capital to build homes that confirmed their social status and to support a network of exclusive private schools, clubs and churches,” writes Double.

Double also presents another view of the community that evolved—one described by another writer back then as an “oligarchy more compact, more tightly and more complacently entrenched than any in the United States. What does the whole Main Line believe in most? Privilege.”

A self-described reformed journalist who worked for the Coatesville Record in the late 1960s, Double had blogged about his affection for root beer before becoming fascinated with Hires. “In the Philadelphia area, people from my generation actually drank the stuff,” says the 81-year-old scribe, who’s retired from the New Jersey State Legislature. “At the heart of it all, Charles Hires was a businessman, a rock-ribbed Republican—and he wasn’t looking to live a bohemian lifestyle.”

In 1894, the Hires family moved to Melrose, a Gothic-style mansion conceived by Theophilus P. Chandler on a 20-acre estate in Merion that Hires renamed Rose Hill. Two years earlier, Hires had purchased lots near the railroad station in Devon. Architect William Price drew up plans for a grand half-timbered house that was never built, and Hires later sold the land to Lincoln Godfrey, the textile magnate from whom he bought Melrose.

By 1908, Hires had purchased a more modest 1.3 acres on Buck Lane in Haverford. Built in 1903 in a Colonial Revival style, the home had 16 rooms and four baths—space enough for his first wife, Clara Kate, and their children: Linda, John Edgar, Harrison, Charles Jr. and Clara. “The family followed a common pattern,” says Jeff Groff, a cultural historian whose mother, Jacqueline Hires Groff, was the daughter of John Edgar Hires. “His sons also lived on the Main Line.”

John Edgar bought a Tudor-style house in Ardmore in the 1910s. Charles Jr. had a house built in Wynnewood, and Harrison settled in Berwyn. Charles Jr., meanwhile, moved into a Colonial Revival home on Yellow Springs Road in Paoli. By 1921, their father’s earnest decisions—aided by popular culture—positioned the Charles E. Hires Co.’s net worth at $2 million or more ($27 million or more today). John Edgar and Harrison served as vice presidents. A graduate of Swarthmore College, John Edgar was also a mechanical engineer. Harrison, another Haverford College alum, was an author and a poet.

The family of Charles’ second wife, Emma Waln, had arrived with William Penn. He named the family yacht and Haverford estate Emwal in her honor. Their 1911 marriage strengthened Hires’ Quakerism, though he was born a Baptist. Hires funded and participated in the restoration of the historic Merion Meeting House, publishing “A Short Historical Sketch of the Old Merion Meeting House” in 1917. “He was a religious man, and moral—not a robber baron, like many in that era,” says Double.

In 1899, Hires built a condensed milk factory in Malvern, transforming the former William Penn Evans Flour Mill into the first of 22 condenseries. Later that year, he began work on an adjacent three-story root beer plant, soon announcing plans to purchase 10 more acres in Malvern to build employee housing.

Within six months of incorporating, the Hires Condensed Milk Co. was producing 20,000 quarts of raw milk daily. According to Double’s book, a single-day record of 34,000 quarts was set in March 1903. Three years earlier, Hires had shifted all root beer manufacturing from Philadelphia to Malvern. He reversed that move in 1904, as shipping was easier from the city.

At least one Hires descendant is pleased that Double’s book is more than just an extract on root beer. “He also corrects some of the myths I’ve read or heard over the years,” says Groff, who works at Winterthur Museum in Delaware and lives in Berwyn.

Karen Hires is the widow of a Hires grandson, William, who died in 2008 at age 92. A psychologist and then a park ranger, he wrote about the family for the Main Line Times, and he actively promoted Hires history. His wife was excited to learn about the diversity and scope of Charles Hires’ exploits, not to mention his undaunted entrepreneurial spirit. “My husband was the family genealogist, so he may have known everything in the book,” says the lifetime Main Liner from her Haverford home.

Now 82, Karen recalls summers sitting around her grandparents’ pool drinking Black Cows—root beer and vanilla ice cream. “Who’d have known that someday I’d be a Hires?” she says.