NEW YORK – If the dictionary entry for “acquired taste” were illustrated, you might see an image of a bottle of Moxie soda. Launched in 1885 in Lowell, Massachusetts, Moxie’s creator, Dr. Augustin Thompson, triumphantly touted it as a teetotal drink that he claimed was “neither a medicine, nor a stimulant,” “harmless as milk,” and had the power to “stop the appetite for intoxicants in old drunkards.” But when it came to advertising, Moxie matched its patent medicine rivals. Ads for the drink appeared prodigiously and prolifically in seemingly every medium of the era, yielding Moxie memorabilia that collectors cherish today.
When the 1906 Food and Drug Act rendered patent medicines illegal, many manufacturers chose to radically overhaul their products instead of withdrawing them from the market. The recipe for Moxie was famously free of addicting substances, so it sailed onward unaffected. Indeed, its deliberate wholesomeness allowed it to embrace the trappings of patent medicine without prompting its audience to think of that era’s darker aspects. Rightly or not, advertisers then and now believe that showing a pretty girl using the product will help sell it.
While there were any number of Moxie Girls during the decades of the beverage’s heyday, its most effective spokesperson was the Moxie Man, later colloquially known as the Moxie Boy – a dark-haired young male wearing a white coat (calling to mind a doctor or a pharmacist) and pointing directly at the viewer while looking them in the eye. His image was invariably positioned above or near the words DRINK MOXIE.
The Moxie Man wasn’t the spitting image of Frank Archer, the marketing wizard who rose from the humble position of soda clerk to head Moxie’s promotional efforts from 1900 until his death in 1937, but the resemblance was close enough. It’s also worth noting that the pointing Moxie Man image debuted in 1911, three years before Lord Kitchener recruited Britons to fight in World War I with a poster showing him extending his index finger directly at them, accompanied by the plea “Your Country Needs You,” a graphic that would in turn be appropriated by James Flagg Montgomery in 1917 for his legendary American WWI recruiting poster, which replaced Lord Kitchener with Uncle Sam. Another notable way in which Moxie shaped the culture was the term “Moxie” itself. Linguists and others who study the history of words have determined the drink came first, and the brand name later became a synonym for strong character, gumption and nerve. Usually, it works the other way around — a company seizes on an existing word, hoping that consumers will associate the qualities of the word with the qualities of its product — but Moxie is an exception.
Another aspect of the patent medicine era survives in Moxie ads as well as the flavor profile of the drink itself – a clear nod to the notion that medicine won’t work if it tastes like candy. Sure, the Moxie Man ad pictured above deems the beverage ‘Clean Wholesome Refreshing,’ but the language on the Moxie Girl ad states, ‘Of Course You’ll Have Some,’ which can read as a threat just as much as an offer of hospitality. Other period Moxie ads counsel the viewer to ‘LEARN TO DRINK MOXIE,’ implying there’s a little more to it than picking up a bottle and parting your lips.
Moxie is still produced today, and the fact that it survives to tantalize 21st-century palates probably boosts the value of the brand’s memorabilia. It’s easier to obtain Moxie now than in pre-Internet times, but what was once a nationally distributed beverage that rivaled Coke and Pepsi has become fiercely and proudly regional. The town of Lisbon, Maine has held an annual Moxie festival since 1982, and will host the 2023 edition from July 7-9. In 2005, the Maine legislature designated Moxie the state’s official soft drink. And the most expensive Moxie-related item in the LiveAuctioneers database ranks among the most Maine-intensive artworks imaginable: It’s a 1982 mixed media on paper by Jamie Wyeth (b. 1946-), he of the Wyeth family of Maine-loving artists, titled Moxie and depicting a goose or a duck sitting in a box emblazoned with the words Drink Moxie. It sold at Bonhams in March 2022 for $115,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Few people are bold enough to claim, straight out, that they like Moxie. Its fans have likened it to root beer that has a bitter aftertaste, with some (three different critics, to be precise) picking up hints of star anise, wintergreen and sarsaparilla. Its detractors are more bitter than the drink they deplore. The most memorable slam appears in a 2010 article in the journal Gastronomica, titled Moxie: A Flavor for the Few, which cites an unnamed commentator on a food forum who said, “Have you ever licked a telephone pole or railroad tie? That is about what Moxie tastes like.”
Fortunately, you are not required to drink Moxie in order to collect its memorabilia. And, according to John Mihovetz, an expert and director at Dan Morphy Auctions since 2016, most of those who bid big on vintage Moxie material are not brand diehards, nor are they concentrated in Maine. Collectors like it because much of it is funky-looking and hard to find. “What’s really, really pushing the market right now is people looking for cool subject matter for display, and Moxie is quirky and it’s really cool,” he said, adding, “I think a lot of people are switching gears to more obscure, unique-looking pieces that are in very high-grade condition. Brands, especially brands like Moxie, go up. Anything obscure or rare, when it comes up at auction, multiple people push the bidding higher over standard Coca-Cola material they’ve seen a dozen times.”
This phenomenon played out in grand fashion in July 2022 at Thomaston Place Auction Galleries in Thomaston, Maine when the house offered a circa-1930s embossed tin Moxie sign in original condition. Estimated at $800-$1,200 and depicting a classical-looking Moxie Hall of Fame with a crowd of people arrayed on steps and admiring a huge Moxie bottle above the legend ‘Distinctly Different,’ it achieved $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Carol Achterhof, an auctioneer and marketing and advertising professional at Thomaston Place, observes that demand for Moxie material “seems to have increased slightly in recent years, particularly for the metal signage.” The July 2022 sale represented the first time the house had handled that particular type of Moxie sign, and it was hotly contested by two bidders who, Achterhof recalls, “chased it to a strong finish.” In speaking about why it did so well, she said, “Aside from its rarity, I think its original condition was a major driver of the strong hammer price. It is a visually appealing item, and that also contributed. Its striking, colorful look and large size were amazing.”
Another variety of Moxie memorabilia that sells at speed, thanks to cross-competition from baseball fans, are its 1950s ads featuring Red Sox legend Ted Williams. So scarce are these that the most recent LiveAuctioneers result dates to February 2014. A near-mint condition cardboard Moxie sign showing Williams in the same pointing pose as the Moxie Man attained $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $800-$1,400 at Dan Morphy Auctions. “There are literally a hundred thousand-fold more buyers of baseball material than Moxie material, but I’ve always told people, it comes down to rarity, graphics and condition,” Mihovetz said.
Perhaps the weirdest variety of Moxie memorabilia references an actual advertising gimmick concocted by Frank Archer: the Moxie Horsemobile. Introduced in 1916, a time when cars were still primarily toys for the rich and not yet the dominant form of transportation, it consisted of a figure of a standing horse mounted behind the wheel of a car; the driver sat on the horse. According to a July 2016 account in the Brookline Townsman newspaper, “the right-hand stirrup is the brake and the left-hand stirrup is the clutch. There is an emergency lever on the left-hand side. It is steered by a rod running up through the neck of the horse. The gasoline and spark are also operated through the neck.” Archer hoped the horsemobiles would command attention, and they did. It’s believed that maybe seven were built during his tenure, and of those, one, a LaSalle Moxie Horsemobile, survives. Rumors of a Rolls-Royce Moxie Horsemobile were so persistent that a brave and moneyed soul made it a reality in the 1980s, and a second individual did so in the early 2000s, both times with the company’s blessing. In July 2011, Mecum Auctions sold the latter, which was built from a 1935 Rolls-Royce, for $55,000.
Unsurprisingly, the Moxie Horsemobile was reproduced as a toy, and those in good condition are in demand. In May 2022, Bertoia Auctions sold a period Moxie Horsemobile tin litho toy, described as being in “pristine condition,” for $2,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Michael Bertoia said that he sees examples of the toy come up once or twice a year, with the blue chassis version proving harder to find. He said that most Moxie Horsemobile toys he sees “turn up with nice condition,” perhaps implying that the original buyers were adults who never intended to play with them or share them with actual children. Speaking about the performance of the May 2022 horsemobile, he said, “It is a tin toy with bright lithography and very whimsical. It has great appeal to both toy collectors and advertising collectors.”
The Moxie Horsemobile is a fair representative of Moxie itself and its enduring allure. It’s odd. It turns your head. It’s old-timey, and it seems like it might be just a little bit off. It reflects a way of thinking that has long since disappeared, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be allowed nowadays. But it’s quirky and fun and it sticks in the memory. You want to invite it into your house, even if you don’t want to invite it into your fridge.