Unfolding the Map
We're in Holliston! Why don't we wander over to the store and get a couple of Moxie's and some food so that we can wander with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) in the local graveyard. Speaking of colas, I apparently have a few things to write about them. Their history is pretty interesting. To see where we are ingesting all that carbonation and sugar, pull your pop-top and check out the map.
"At Holliston, I stopped and took a sandwich and a bottle of Moxie (once advertised as 'the only harmless nerve food known that can recover loss of manhood, imbecility and helplessness') into the old town burial ground and ate lunch while I walked and read the slanting slate tombstones. There were carved urns, hourglasses, and weeping willows; among the mors vincit omnia sentiments were some well-cut death's-heads and angels of redemption. Often it's hard to tell the difference because the death's heads evolved into angels, the angels into cherubs, the cherubs into portraits of the deceased."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 4
I've never had a Moxie, though I would like to. One of the most interesting stories of America, I think, is how all around the same time a variety of beverages were born that employed various natural extracts in their recipes to promote health, vitality and vigor.
Back in the day, soft drinks were considered elixirs and curatives. Carbonated water was considered good for health, and soft drink companies added ingredients to bolster the health effects. Coca-Cola, for instance, was named after the coca alkaloid extract used in its recipe. After cocaine was declared illegal in the US, the alkaloid was removed but the use of coca leaf continued to be part of Coca-Cola's recipe. Pepsi Cola mixed carbonated water with a digestive enzyme, pepsin, and kola nuts. Dr. Pepper was sold as a brain tonic, and energizer.
To see this concentration on health, take for example some early Coca-Cola slogans: "Coca-Cola Revives and Sustains." (1905) "The Great National Temperance Beverage." (1906) "The Hit That Saves the Day!" (1920) "Pure as Sunlight!" (1927).
Or how about Pepsi's implications of health and vigor in its slogans? "Delicious and Healthful." (1905) "More Bounce to the Ounce." (1950).
7-Up used a mood stabilizer, lithium, in its recipe until it was prohibited by law in 1948. It's slogan was "You Like It, It Likes You" and a doctor's testimonial claimed that 7-Up gave its drinkers "an abundance of energy, enthusiasm, a clear complexion, lustrous hair, and shining eyes."
Here's some of Dr. Pepper's slogans: "Drink a Bite to Eat at 10, 2, and 4 o'clock." (1920s-40s) "When You Drink a Dr. Pepper You Drink a Bite to Eat." (1939)
Moxie, which LHM references above, claimed that it could help relieve the effects of "paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia." It claimed its main ingredient came from a rare South American plant with healing properties. It currently contains ingredients of gentian root, which has been used as an herbal remedy for digestive disorders in South America. The early popularity of the cola contributed to the English language. One has "moxie" if one is energetic and youthful, as in "Boy, I like her moxie!" or "He's got a lot of moxie!" It has the distinction of being the first mass-marketed American soft drink.
Of course, today this sounds like the patent medicine scams that were going on at roughly the same time that colas were coming into prominence as health aids. Patent medicines promised to cure and bring about health, but usually didn't work and sometimes had deleterious health effects. Even those that delivered on their promises did so with dangerous ingredients. Syrups sold by salesmen across rural and urban areas of America, and in Sears catalogs as well, promised to cure whooping cough, revitalize bodily systems, relieve constipation and restore health to bowels, kidneys and liver. Common ingredients used in such medicines and promoted as healthy were alcohol, radium, radon, mercury, and arsenic. Medicines with opium and morphine were promoted as a way to soothe crying babies. Herbs considered "abortifacients" were often promoted as being healthy to pregnant women. Jolts of electricity were used to restore health and vigor, and even cure crippled people. It is telling that many of the modern pharmaceutical companies began as manufacturers, promoters and sellers of patent medicines, and that the Food and Drug Administration, one of those government agencies so maligned by those on the right side of the political spectrum, was created in order to regulate such companies from making false claims and harming public health.
Of course, now we know that Coke, Pepsi, and other soft drinks can be bad for health because of their high sugar content. Overconsumption of sugar can, of course, lead to obesity and a risk of diabetes. New York City has recently gone so far as to impose penalties on restaurants that serve soft drinks in containers over 16 ounces. Yet there is often still a marketing around the supposed health benefits of sodas. When I visited El Salvador, I saw in small type on a Coke bottle, written in Spanish, an implication that Coke was a reliable alternative to water in quenching thirst. Of course, it is not. Nothing is an alternative to water.
But there is a fascinating history behind colas, if you get into it. And its curious that a new round of soft drinks are starting to revive claims of health and energy. The whole energy drink craze, which advertises boosts in mental and physical energy, has created a whole new young population of adherents and, some might say, addicts. These drinks contain either higher dosages of caffeine, and/or other natural stimulants such as guarana, ginseng, gingko biloba, inositol, taurine, and carnitine.
All of this makes LHM's juxtaposition of his lunchtime sojourn in a graveyard, sipping his Moxie, sort of funny to me. When I lived in Milwaukee, I was part of a larger social justice community. Some of the people I hung out with were very anti-Coca Cola, part of an anti-corporate attitude in general. I sat in a movie once and cringed as one of my friends, upon seeing a Coke ad just before the movie started, yelled "Coke f***s the third world!" There are many who would see the graveyard as an apt metaphor for what the giant soft drink companies and the giant pharmaceutical companies have done in the course of gathering wealth and growing to their current multi-billion dollar sizes. Yet I'm reminded by LHM that mors vincit omnia, death conquers all. Most likely even Coke, Pepsi, and all the others. After all, Moxie was the biggest cola company in the world, and now you can only find it in New England and Pennsylvania. The moxie left Moxie, the pep will someday desert Pepsi, and Coke will get coked up and flame out.
Until then, Coke will teach the world to sing, Pepsi will focus on Generation Next, and me and my RC will continue with LHM to the end of his Blue Highways journey, occasionally stopping for a pause that refreshes.
A slew of Cola songs! First, I grew up with this Coke commercial, and I still think of it.
Pepsi hit it big when it landed Michael Jackson to shill its sodas.
If you want to know more about Holliston
Next up: Taunton, Massachusetts