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The Melcher Gift Shop — A 'Sweet' Memory

A long gone neighborhood store brings back memories of root beer and its deep historical roots in the country and Salem.

The above circa 1929 photograph of 6 Orne St. is interesting for several reasons. Here, like many other places throughout the city there was a small neighborhood store.

The City Directory first lists the building in 1926 as the Melcher Gift Shop.  Gertrude Melcher of Buffum Street ran the shop, which seems to have sold refreshments as well as gifts. While there were and are several stores on nearby North Street, presumably this store catered to the Liberty Hill and North Street areas.

The vintage photograph from 1929 was used by the City as an example of tree damage caused by the disposal of ice cream salts in the street. This resulted in stricter enforcement of a City Ordinance banning the practice. It was also proposed that new developments and buildings have sufficient property lines that allowed for trees within the property and not in the streets where excavations and wires were problematic.

With the prominent Hires sign, it’s obvious that this corner store like many of the others that were in most neighborhoods, offered drinks and probably homemade ice cream. When making ice cream in those days, the cream was placed in a container that was surrounded by a mixture of ice and salt. As the cream was stirred, the icy, salt water that surrounded the cream container would absorb the mixture’s heat making it into icy cream. The resultant salty water was then discarded. Apparently this was too frequently poured around trees causing damage or death to them.

The Hires sign that is common in old photos, refers to Hires Root Beer, America’s first root beer. It was developed by Charles Hires of Pennsylvania as a “root tea” a delicious mix of 16 wild roots and berries in the 1870s.

There are a number of stories regarding how he came up with the recipe including that it was based on a Native American drink. Most interesting from a Salem perspective was his marketing strategy that tied this non-alcoholic beer to the locally, very popular Temperance Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. Throughout this period and well into the 20th century Salem was a constant host and supporter of a number of temperance groups that sought to ban alcohol.

Hires billed his root beer as the alternate drink for the hard drinking Pennsylvania miners. His drink, in keeping with his strong support of temperance had no alcohol in it. The drink didn’t gain real popularity until after the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 where he gave away thousands of cold root beer mugs.

The first year he marketed his new beer it sold 115,000 glasses in stores. With one of the first aggressive marketing campaigns using trading cards, signs and newspaper ads that figure quickly grew to 700 million glasses making him a millionaire and a leading supporter of the Temperance Movement. In 1893, Hires started producing ready mixed bottles of Root Beer that were distributed throughout the country. In addition to the root beer, Hires also sold a root beer fountain machine that was so reasonably priced that most stores and stands bought them.

The ice cream soda and root beer float interestingly also had its origins in Philadelphia in 1874 where Robert McKay Green combined soda water and ice cream making the ice cream soda. The Root Beer Float sometimes called a Black or Brown Cow, was the most popular variation of the drink that became a standard in all soda fountains. Because soda water was marketed as a medicinal curative, local conservative governments felt it should be regulated. That regulation banned ice cream sodas on Sundays and holy day, giving rise to the substitution that became known as the Sundae where ice cream with coatings without soda water was offered.

With such a strong connection between root beer and ice cream, it’s no wonder that ice cream salts had become a problem. Root Beer and the rapidly growing soft drink trade were a staple of every small store in the city. While the root beer competition grew Hires, maintained its hold on the market and was producer of the most popular soft drink in America. During Prohibition a number of brewers switched to making root beer in order to stay in business.  

This popularity of Root Beer gradually faded in favor of cola drinks which became more popular in the 1950s. Having grown up in the 50s I recall the popularity of root beer. While my personal choice was Frosty’s Root Beer, Hires, which was more available, would always do for a cold foamy mug or an root beer float.

Now Root Beer only accounts for 3 percent of soft drinks in the US and is virtually unknown in the rest of the world.

The Melcher Gift shop closed around 1929 and the building remained vacant for several years until 1936 when The Moody Square Press used the building. The Moody Square Press was operated by James Carlin and Edward Ryan, Jr .until 1941. From 1941 to 1948 the building was listed as a vacant store. After 1949 there is no listing. Presumably the building was removed at that time taking with it memories of another time and place.

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