A Somewhat Brief History of Moxie
In the latter days of the 19th century, the development of patent medicines was a popular pursuit of fledgling inventors, backroom chemists, and other assorted types. Long before the days of branding and Madison Avenue marketing, these various products often burst on the scene to much fanfare and quickly faded from view, only to become future trivia questions and left solely to the most loyal of consumers who in their own right could be described as cult aficionados.
Located in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts, the city of Lowell in the 1880s was an industrial city, with huge textile facilities lining the Merrimack River. While textile production was the anchor industry of the area, numerous manufacturers of patent medicines and various elixirs also set up shop in the city.
On July16, 1885, Dr. Augustin Thompson filed trademark number 12,565 (subsequently registered on September 8, 1885) for a product he called Moxie Nerve Food.
Thompson’s trademark indicated that Moxie, “has not a drop of Medicine, Poison, Stimulant, or Alcohol in its composition.”
Later on, Thompson’s application stated that Moxie was, “a liquid preparation charged with soda for the cure of paralysis, softening of the brain, and mental imbecility and called ‘Moxie Nerve Food.’ It is comprised in the class of medical compounds.”
The trademark application specified that Thompson chose the word Moxie arbitrarily and that he had been using the term in his business to describe his drink since April 1, 1884. Later, Moxie collectors and other historians would split hairs about whether the drink originated in 1884 or 1885. For marketing purposes, at least from the 1940s onward, ads stated that Moxie had been around since 1884.
After the filing of his patent for his product, Thompson began thinking of ways to market his drink/elixir, which led to the legend of something know as Lieutenant Moxie.
Lieutenant Moxie was a friend of Dr. Thompson. He had amassed a considerable fortune through speculation in oil around the world. After acquiring tubercular consumption from his mother, Moxie traveled to various regions of the world in search of a cure. In the mountains of South America, he discovered a medicinal plant, later known to be gentian root, being used by natives, to cure various ailments. Finding that it elicited a positive reaction on his own nervous system, Thompson claims the Lieutenant shipped a supply of the medicinal root, with the history of its use, to him in Lowell.
Thompson noted, “I found it cured anything caused by nervous exhaustion. It restored nervous people who were tired out mentally or physically; stopped the appetite for intoxicants in old drunkards, insanity, blindness from overtaxing the sight, paralysis, all but hereditary sick-headache, loss of manhood from excesses, made people able to stand twice their usual amount of labor, mentally, or physically, with less fatique. It cured two cases of softening of the brain, and recovered helpless limbs. I found it to be neither medicine nor stimulant, but a nerve food, and harmless as milk.” [from The Moxie Encyclopedia, Volume I, The History, by Q. David Bowers, page 32.]
News spread quickly of claims of Moxie’s medicinal qualities and demand for Thompson’s product saw him begin production, bottling 27,000 bottles per week.
What began as a local phenomenon, quickly expanded beyond the soda fountains and stores of Lowell. By July of 1885, Moxie was made in four large factories, with distribution throughout New England and New York. Production now exceeded 500,000 bottles. Wholesale dealers were being added all the time and sales agents were acquired in Rochester, New York; Baltimore, Maryland; and as far west as Chicago, Illinois.
While numerous variations on the Moxie legend would appear over the next several decades, it was obvious that Thompson’s original product had struck a nerve with consumers in New England and elsewhere. Where Thompson garnered the Moxie name from will always be a point of conjecture, particularly whether, or not, Moxie was a name that originated from Maine geography.
One thing we do know is that Dr. Augustin Thompson was born in Union, Maine, on November 25, 1835. It’s possible that he remembered seeing the name Moxie on a map of the state, like Moxie Lake, Moxie Mountain, or East Moxie Township.
Thompson received his education in the public schools of Union and at the age of sixteen, became an apprentice for a blacksmith. Young Thompson tried to develop a passion for his new trade, but he found it too confining and never was able to put his whole being into it.
As was common of self-taught men from the era, young Thompson spent much time studying a variety of books. He taught himself Latin and German and his once small library continued to expand. A voracious reader, Thompson acquired books wherever he could find them.
As an adult, Thompson would stand five feet, ten inches tall and by the time of the Civil War, though he might have been perceived as something of an intellectual, he was still able to mix it up with the best of his Company G of the 28th infantry. Known as the Maine Volunteers, Thompson did his part after enlisting in September of 1862, and was even commended twice for gallant performances in battle.
During one such battle, Thompson was struck in the chest by a rifle butt and subsequently was diagnosed with tuberculosis. From the complications that came with the disease, Thompson received an honorable discharge and returned to Maine in August of 1863.
After the war, Thompson enrolled at Hahnemann Homeopathic College in Philadelphia, where he would study medicine and graduate at the head of his class. In August of 1867, he made a decision to return to New England and Lowell, a burgeoning industrial city of nearly 40,000. This seemed like the ideal place to establish his fledgling practice.
Thompson built his practice into one of the largest in the city and according to an 1897 biography, worked nearly 18 hours a day, without vacation, church attendance, or other respites. Through overwork, Thompson, a vigorous man, “broke down and was obliged to build himself to vigor again.” This need to restore health and vitality was how he came to invent Moxie.
A devoted teetotaler, who also forswore tobacco products of any kind, he was particularly interested in remedies and so-called cures for alcoholism. He developed a solution to addiction called the New England Cure for Alcoholism. This product achieved limited popularity and was utilized by a variety of other health professionals.
Thompson was a meticulous keeper of journals. His notes indicate that he had developed a theory which he would later expand into book form. Thompson believed that illness should be treated gradually. He also had come to the conclusion that as diseases developed from small beginnings, it was likewise logical to treat them the same way—with small doses, later progressing to larger doses. This developed from the theories prominent among other homeopathic professionals of Thompson’s era. By the mid-1880s, nerve foods, of which Moxie was just one of many, had become popular with readers of newspapers and other advertising periodicals.
Moxie’s growing popularity necessitated that Thompson eventually would be forced to give up his lucrative medical practice and devote himself fulltime to merchandising his nerve food.
In 1888 and early 1889, Moxie was on its way to being a prosperous product, with Thompson receiving a regular $100 per month salary. The product established extensive distribution channels, with beachheads in major urban areas like Cleveland, Ohio and George Walker’s Western Moxie Nerve Food Company, in Chicago. Walker’s Moxie Bottle Wagon helped make Moxie one of the most popular beverages in the American West.
As salesman fanned out over the Midwest, they often handed aluminum tokens that read, “Good for one drink of Moxie at the Moxie Bottle Wagon.” These tokens had the image of the single-horse Moxie Bottle Wagon stamped on Because these tokens were quite elegant and shiny, a practice developed where young girls and older ladies would punch a hole in the token, loop a chain or decorative cord through them, and wear these coins as pendants. On the other hand, men and boys saw them as good-luck pieces, so they often ended up in drawers, instead of being handed to the Bottle Wagon drivers for a free drink of Moxie. As a result, many of these continue to be discovered and are a coveted Moxie collectible.
The Moxie Bottle Wagons traveled from town to town and were an effective advertising tool for Moxie. From an article that ran in Yankee Magazine, in August, 1969 titled “The Moxie Man,” Edna Hills Humphrey wrote how her father, Charles E. Hills, who as a Dartmouth medical student, spent one summer vacation driving one of the Moxie Bottle Wagons around New England, “experiencing all the joys and passions of a young man out on his own.”
Thompson possessed the skills of entrepreneur and his passion and creativity around promotion helped his drink’s popularity rise upward. Despite the success he was seeing with the drink, he missed his medical practice and in 1889, reestablished a practice in Lowell, specializing in homeopathic medicine and surgery.
Around this time, William Taylor, an active Moxie agent in upstate New York, entered into an agreement with Thompson. Taylor’s success with Moxie had allowed him to establish his own trading company, William Taylor & Company, and he became a lessee of The Moxie Nerve Food Company, within Massachusetts, taking over for Thompson. Thompson would receive $5,000 per year from this arrangement, and acquired the title of general manager of Taylor’s company.
During the 1890s, William Taylor & Company added new products to their roster, such as Moxie Lozenges, Moxie Catarrh Cure, Dr. Thompson’s Condensed Medicated Wafers, Moxie Syrup, and Moxie Cerealina. Moxie continued to expand westward, opening bottling operations in St. Louis and then; Kansas City, Missouri.
By 1892, a reorganization of the Moxie empire was under way. The activities of William Taylor & Co. were being curtailed and a new firm was established, at a meeting in Saco, Maine, on December 26, 1892.
The Moxie Nerve Food Company of New England was established, with offices in Boston and Lowell. Later, the Moxie Nerve Food Company of Illinois was created and operated for the next decade, before dissolving in June of 1901.
Dr. Thompson’s rich and prolific life had entered its twilight. Over the last decade of his life, he continued writing plays, advertisements for Moxie, and a series of letters to newspaper editors, covering topics from geography, economics, the law, and his favorite topic—politics. Thompson became quite interested and involved in the Free Silver movement, which dominated the McKinley-Bryan presidential campaign of 1896.
Thompson continued to weigh in on subjects such as the Spanish-American War (he was in favor of swift and decisive action by the Americans) and the importance of the U.S. expanding its empire, by taking the Philippine Islands.
On November 17, 1902, Thompson sought copyright for a 114-page book, The Origin and Continuance of Life: Together with the Development of a System of Medical Administration on the Law of the Similars, from a Discovery of its Principles in the Law of Natural Affinities.
The book contained an illustration of a new invention, the Thompson Vitalizer, which was a contraption consisting of tanks of compressed gases, tubes, and other related apparatus. Thompson envisioned a series of parlors, up and down the east coast.
Thompson passed away, June 8, 1903, at the age of 67.
Copyright © 2008 by Jim Baumer