Updated: Jul 25, 2022
An excerpt from Downeast Genius by Earl Smith
As if Maine had not already contributed mightily to satisfying the nation’s taste buds, its ties to delectable diversions took yet another step after the Civil War, when patent medicines were all the rage. It began with a remedy called Moxie Nerve Food, and became a soft drink and a Maine icon.
Although the government did not patent the patent medicines, use of the term helped give credence to claims of the makers that their concoctions provided cures for every imaginable affliction ranging from constipation to consumption, and from hay fever to headaches. Few actually worked. Many were laced with morphine, opium, or cocaine, and were downright dangerous.
Union native Augustin Thompson (1835-1903) served as a medical officer with the 28th Maine Volunteer Infantry during the war, and later practiced medicine in Lowell, Massachusetts. On a spring day in 1884, he was visited by a Union Army comrade, Lt. Clyde Ambrose Moxie, who brought with him a sample of an elixir he had procured in South America. He told Thompson that the natives assured him that the medicine gave the body exceptional power. Its essence was an extract from the bitter root of the herb called gentian.
Thompson wasted no time duplicating the recipe and marketing it as Moxie Nerve Food in honor of his friend. The label on the bottle guaranteed the nostrum would cure a range of afflictions including “loss of manhood, paralysis, and softening of the brain.”
The touted nerve food, first dosed by the spoonful, caught on quickly, and in 1886 Thompson closed his practice and began selling his potion as a carbonated drink. First called Beverage Moxie Nerve Food, it quickly became simply Moxie. It was among the first soft drinks mass-produced in the United States.
The soda’s unique flavor, sweet but with a bitter aftertaste, attracted thousands of customers, and by the turn of the century Moxie was outselling all other soft beverages in New England, including the burgeoning Coca-Cola. Because of its robust taste, the name, with a small ‘m’, entered the vernacular language meaning courage, daring, or chutzpah. At one time, Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams endorsed the product on radio and in print advertisements. President Calvin Coolidge also enjoyed Moxie. By the second half of the twentieth century sales had declined substantially from the drink’s heyday.
Moxie became Maine’s official soft drink in 2005, and in 2018 its old competitor, Coca-Cola, purchased the Moxie Beverage Company.
This excerpt from Earl Smith's Downeast Genius explains the lore behind Maine's famous state soft drink, one of the state's great inventions. In this delightful, informative compendium of 53 of some the greatest inventors in Maine's history and their amazing inventions, Smith discovers the whys, whats, and where-to-fores that prompted the creation of so many essentials and entertainments we now take for granted.