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The energy drinks of the early 1900s
The long evolution of beverages that give you a boost
Hello, Snackers. What gives you wings? Turns out it’s changed significantly over time.
Grocery stores are a cabinet of wonders for kids, stuffed as they are with pyramids of oranges, cartoon-adorned cereal boxes, mysterious cuts of meat in the deli, and a million other novelties and temptations. For me, as a preteen in the 1980s, one product that always caught my attention Jolt Cola, which was sold in a cooler in the back corner of our local market. It came in an eye-catching aluminum can: red background with silver stripes, a logo that featured a lightning bolt zooming through the middle of the O, beneath which was the slogan “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.”
Jolt was both alluring and terrifying. In my mind, a single sip could either give me superpowers or put me in the hospital. The potential for either scenario felt all the more pronounced because Jolt had no other competitors in grocery-store cooler—it was a product unto itself, an island of hyper-caffeination in a sea of Gatorade and juice. Jolt entered the market in 1985, before any of the brands that dominate the energy drink category today: Red Bull debuted in 1987 (though an earlier, less popular version had been around since 1976), Rockstar in 2001, Monster in 2002, Bang in 2012.
Jolt was the first energy drink of its kind to make it big in the USA, but it wasn’t the first highly caffeinated beverage anywhere. The consensus seems to be that the roots go back to Japan in the early 1960s. Here’s an explainer that ran in The New York Times Magazine in 2013:
The energy drink, as we know it, started in Japan. In the postwar period, amphetamines were very popular until laws were passed to curb their use in the 1950s. Then in 1962, a company called Taisho introduced Lipovitan D — a legal, energizing tonic sold in minibar-size bottles. By the 1980s, such vitamin-fortified, extra-caffeinated beverages were being regularly consumed by Japanese executives struggling to get ahead. One television ad showed Arnold Schwarzenegger bursting from a flagon like a juiced-up genie. Another had a hero in suit and tie, signing deals and making presentations as he raced around the world. “Can you fight for 24 hours a day?” he chanted with his chin upturned. “Businessman, businessman, Japanese businessman!”
There’s a lot to process here. I’m especially intrigued by the fact that it got popular as performance-booster for businessmen, which is far closer to the reality of the everyday consumer than the extreme-sports-centered branding of American energy drinks (for every Red Bull consumer who chugs one before BASE jumping, there are at tens of thousands who sip their drinks while staring at a computer screen with existential dread).
But that paragraph piqued my curiosity long before Arnold showed up and even before the eyebrow-raising phrase “amphetamines were very popular.” My mental highlighter came out in the opening sentence: “The energy drink, as we know it, started in Japan.”
“As we know it.” This implies that the modern version had a different precursor. Which was … what, exactly?
Plenty of people have already written about the history of energy drinks as we know them but I was more interested in what came before. It turns out there was, in fact, something else, a style of energy drink that was massively popular in the USA a century ago but has essentially disappeared here—although it endures elsewhere.
Every modern authority that has defined “energy drink” in an official capacity, from the CDC to the Harvard School of Public Health to the Encyclopedia Britannica, classifies it as a beverage with a significant amount of stimulants such as caffeine or guarana or, I suppose, amphetamines. So that’s where we stand now.
But if you go looking in newspaper and magazine archives for the earliest references to “energy drink,” you find tons of examples before the 1960s.
For example, Welch’s Grape Juice, seen here in a 1948 ad in Washington, DC Evening Star (note the highlighted bit on the far right):
Or here’s Ovaltine, in an ad that ran in the Muncie Evening Press in 1927:
The same year, Bowey’s Hot Chocolate ran many newspaper ads with the paired taglines “The Energy Drink” and “Not Cocoa,” including the one below and the one at the top of this post.
I also enjoy this 1907 ad for PBR, which doesn’t use the exact term “energy drink,” but uses the same basic pitch:
(Next time you’re at a barbecue, try asking someone to grab you a can of “practically predigested beer” and see how that goes over.)
The point is, there were lots of different versions of energy drinks during this period and none of them had stimulants.
There were caffeinated beverages, of course, but the weren’t marketed as they are today. Their purpose was pitched as something more medicinal, or maligned as a “poison” akin to narcotics or “more harmful than beer.” Caffeine’s prominent critics included John Harvey Kellogg, the cereal guy with all manner of odd and/or problematic ideas about best practices for wellness (e.g. “15-quart enemas and electrical currents to the eyeballs”). Joining Kellogg in the anti-caffeine brigade was C.W. Post, also best known for cereals today but equally famous back then for creating Postum, a coffee alternative that he touted as an energy drink specifically because it lacked caffeine. The product’s ad campaigns made it abundantly clear that this was the anti-coffee, including this one I just had to show you in case you need inspiration for a new tattoo or wall art:
While there were lots of different products promoted as “energy drinks” during this period, right up to World War II or so, there was one particular kind that wore this label most often and with the greatest pride: malt drinks, which were available in various forms. These ads were especially common in the 1900s and 1910s:
Other malt beverages of the period offered similar claims, including Malt Marrow, which decreed that it “tones and enriches the blood, brings the glow of health.”
These beverages were nonalcoholic, but it’s still fascinating, and telling, that they have more in common with PBR than with Red Bull or Jolt. It’s indicative of the widespread sentiment of the day: malt was broadly good for you (though perhaps not with alcohol involved) and caffeine was somewhere between “not great but acceptable in moderation” and “taking one sip is like building a World’s Fair of illness and evil in your body.” (Look, I spent 20 minutes trying to figure out a good early-1900s pop culture reference and that was the best I could do; I welcome your suggestions.)
It’s worth recalling here that Ovaltine, that other energy drink, also includes malt as a key ingredient, and so did its various competitors, like this one called Toddy:
Malt, unlike caffeine, was in beverages for kids and in other products marketed for adults—it was the all-purpose energy-giver in American beverages, a protein-boosted pep in your step, basically until caffeine took over the collective imagination thanks to Japanese drinks and their successors.
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Ovaltine is still sold in the USA, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single ad for it, and the product has always come across, in my kid-of-the-’80s brain, as unappealingly old-fashioned. Vimalt is long gone, as is Malt Marrow. Go looking for a “malt beverage” in the USA today and you’ll be quickly be directed to the liquor section. Do you want a 40 of Olde English or a six-pack of mango White Claw?
It's not clear why malt faded as the USA’s energy-giver of choice, sometime between the 1960s and 1980s, while caffeine took its place. My top-of-the-head answer is that as Americans increasingly looked to convenience foods and quick-fix solutions, the instant hit of caffeine just sold better than the slower burn of malt. They’re the beverage industry’s version of “Get rich quick!” and “Lose pounds fast!” Instant gratification: it's the American way. But that's speculation.
What's concretely clear, though, is the fact that malt energy drinks continue to thrive beyond our shores. In much of the world outside the USA—and in import stores here in the States—you’ll still find all manner of nonalcoholic malt beverages, still billed as great sources of energy.
Supermalt, popular across Africa and the Caribbean, was originally developed as an energy drink for the Nigerian military. Vitamalt (which is what Google thinks you mean when you search for “Vimalt”) is “the original Caribbean non-alcoholic malt enjoyed across the world. A delicious, natural & refreshing source of energy to kick start any day.” The various forms of Malta, made by the likes of Goya and Guinness (and the famous Malta India), often come with a similar pitch.
Malt beverages are, in fact, a growing business, and if you’re an eager entrepreneur, here’s a whole market report available for a mere $3,321. Many Americans may find the drinks old-fashioned and odd because they don’t seem to fit into our modern culture, but then again, that’s true of cricket and David Hasselhoff, and they’re doing just fine.
Even in my 40s, I still find American energy drinks conceptually jarring, especially the sugar-free ones, because getting a boost without taking in calories is some weird mad-scientist-with-terrifying-elixir stuff. I like caffeine, mind you, and when you add it to juice, I’m there, even if that’s also a bit of mad-scientist mixology.
But maybe it’s time for me to head over to my local import store and try a nonalcoholic malt drink. It’s a taste of American history and the everyday present outside the USA. It might not give me wiiiings but, honestly, that seems just as well.