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The Moxie Encyclopedia. Volume 1. The history.

The Moxie Encyclopedia. Volume 1. The History.

By Q. David Bowers. (Vestal, N.Y.: The Vestal Press, Ltd., 1985. 760 pp. Illustrations and index. $19.95.)

Moxie was a patent medicine energetically promoted by its manufacturer, Dr. Augustin Thompson, as a revivifying "nerve food' for tension-exhausted Americans of the 1880s and 1890s. Alert to the era's concerns about the pace of life and the pressures of competition, Thompson stressed the salubrious effect of Moxie's mysterious ingredients upon "brain and nervous exhaustion.' He also claimed that his discovery had restored sexual strength and cured "paralysis, softening of the brain and mental imbecility.'

As patent medicines came under increasing attack at the turn of the century, Moxie gradually achieved a difficult and imperfect metamorphosis into a "refreshing popular beverage.' Produced by a narrowly held and undercapitalized concern with factories in Lowell and Boston, Moxie never gained steady distribution outside New England and barely survived the competition of Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, and other soft drinks. But within its New England stronghold, the Moxie company performed prodigious feats of advertising and promotional showmanship and even succeeded in infusing its brand name into the national language as a colloquial term connoting pluck and energy.

Moxie faced no easy task in its struggle for survival, even though its relative uniqueness among patent medicines in containing neither alchohol nor cocaine had made it momentarily popular as a temperance drink and a cure for alcoholism. When it cast off its curative claims in its search for new success as a popular beverage, it did not--and, perhaps, could not--entirely cast off its medicinal, bittersweet taste. The (unadvertised) testimony of some critical samplers of the drink suggests that Moxie's "characteristic tartness' loomed as one of the major barriers to its success in a soft drink market gravitating toward the pleasure principle. One reporter found it "bitter--more so than wormwood.' John Ciardi, in A Browser's Dictionary, would later surmise that Moxie had survived among a small New England clientele because it perpetuated the "dreadful dosage and . . . depraved taste' that stemmed from the old custom of taking sulfur and molasses as a spring tonic. The bittersweet taste of Moxie, deriving from the inclusion of the gentian root among its ingredients, continued to claim some loyal patrons including (some would say, predictably) President Calvin Coolidge. But the Moxie company's refusal to disappoint this following with drastic changes in flavor inhibited its capacity to attract a wider new following. Perhaps the Coca-Cola company has been reflecting upon this "lesson' of late.

How successfully Moxie, despite the flavor factor, might have competed with other soft drinks for a share of the national market we cannot judge, because the company never sufficiently revamped its business structure or attracted the capital investment to develop effective nationwide distribution. Under the successive guidance of Augustin Thompson, Frank Archer, and Frank Archer, Jr., the company remained largely a one-man affair. Explorations into franchising quickly collapsed, and the company never formulated a marketing strategy or developed a managerial corps for successfully conducting operations at a distance. Q. David Bowers celebrates Frank Archer as an advertising and merchandising genius for his irrepressible energy in constantly launching such publicity gimmicks as the Moxie "horsemobile' (an automobile chassis surmounted by a life-size plaster, wood, or metal horse from the back of which the rider-driver would operate the pedals and steering wheel of this popular parade attraction of the 1920s and 1930s). But the "genius' of Archer more closely approximated the flair of a P. T. Barnum than the more modern and sophisticated techniques of the 1920s and 1930s advertising and marketing professionals. Even the Lydia Pinkham company, sensing its increasingly antiquated image, began to solicit the advice of major advertising agencies in the 1930s. But the Moxie company kept its own counsel; its advertising and merchandising increasingly displayed an archaic quality.

In 692 profusely illustrated pages, Bowers sets forth the year-by-year chronicle of Moxie's brash, youthful success and its long declension. Readers will judge the book according to their interests and expectations. Bowers appropriately entitles this account an "Encyclopedia,' and those searching for fugitive details will admire his exhaustive work of research and compilation. Many original documents, even the most prosaic, are quoted at great length. No principle of selection excludes from the text such tidbits as the number of Moxie puzzles ordered for the 1900 Philadelphia Food Fair or the exact cost of the founder's funeral.

Readers seeking a broader contribution to business history will be disappointed by the lack of context and comparison. Beyond providing an exhaustive, annotated scrapbook of artifacts, a more fully developed history might have explored the Moxie company as a case study of how a small company, through structural weaknesses and managerial idiosyncrasies, failed to match its more successful competitors in expanding to develop a national market. Perhaps even more intriguing would have been an analysis of the company's fate as a reflection of a broad cultural transformation--the struggle of an austere tonic, manufactured and promoted by devotees of the work ethic (Thompson never took a vacation; Archer, in 1931, indulged in his first day off in thirty-five years), to survive in an increasingly self-indulgent society in which most people, tempted by sweeter, more pleasant drinks, lacked the moxie to choose Moxie.
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Author:Marchand, Roland
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1987
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