Cincinnati’s Oldest Brick House, the Betts House, and the pop that saved it.
The history of American Cola drinks teaches us a valuable lesson in reinventing economies. It’s no coincidence that the most successful and iconic American sodas were invented in the south. Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, by John S. Pemberton. Its archrival Pepsi, was invented in New Bern, North Carolina, in the 1890s by Caleb Bradhem. Dr. Pepper got its start in Waco, Texas in 1885. Ale-8 was born in Winchester, Kentucky, in 1906, and still is an iconic drink.
So why was the south so soda savvy? Well, after the Civil War uprooted the South’s slave economy, the soda industry was one way they had to reinvent themselves. In the aftermath of the Civil War, forward thinking business people, newspaper editors, and politicians urged the South to replace its old agrarian economy with a new one of industry and commerce. With a plethora of soda fountains (that added soda water to ice cream and flavored syrups), and a hot climate that required constant refreshment, the South was ripe to foster a whole new industry. Former coal regions of the U.S. should take note.
One of those iconic soda brands, started in New Orleans, Louisiana, was given a new product with Cincinnati Yankee ingenuity. That product became so successful, its fortune ended up saving our city’s oldest house, the Betts House.
That soda pop, invented in Cincinnati, is Barq’s Red Crème Soda. It was the brainchild of Robert S. Tuttle, Sr., who with partners Hugh Carmichael and Albert Badanes, founded the Barq Bottling Co. in Cincinnati in 1937.
The 1941 Barqer, a company newsletter with Cincinnati Bottling Partner Badanes on the cover.
Before we award Yankee ingenuity, we need to go back to the start of Barq’s. French immigrants Edward Barq and brother Gaston, founded the Barq Brothers Bottling Company in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1890. They had early success with orange soda winning an award at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1898, Edward married and moved to Biloxi, Mississippi, where he invented the drink that would become Barq’s Root Beer. In 1934, they started franchising out bottlers around the country. That’s where Cincinnati comes in.
The ingenious bottling franchisee, Mr. Tuttle, decided to add red dye to the amber-colored creme soda, creating what would become a kids’ favorite — red pop. It was even more popular when mixed with vanilla ice cream to create the Pink Cow.
The Pink Cow.
Soon thereafter, the parent company in Biloxi, Miss., where franchise bottlers purchased the root beer and creme soda concentrates, also began adding the dye.
Tuttle experimented with other flavored Barq’s like lemon-lime, and orange, but the red-dyed crème soda remained king.
The thing was, the dye didn’t add any flavor. Unlike, say Faygo’s Redpop, which is a strawberry flavored soda, Barq’s red pop didn’t add any fruit flavors at all. It was the perception of the color red. It was brilliant! What the industry realized, after Barq’s addition of the red, is that the color red is a bright, fun color. Most red soda was consumed by children. Red colored, strawberry soda became a standard drink at end of slavery Juneteenth Celebrations, but was not referred to by its flavor, but as ‘red pop’ or ‘red soda’.
Psychological research in the food industry showed that a consumer’s perception of a food’s taste is more dependent on color than actual flavor. If it looks good, people will think it’s good. That’s why Blaq water, hucked out by the Real Housewives of New Jersey Manzo family failed miserably – nobody wants to drink black water! By the 1960s, red dye in soft drinks had become an end in itself, a way to attract consumers to a fruitless product.
Sales took off and the threesome realized success as the franchise that covered Greater Cincinnati established plants in Hamilton and Portsmouth. Mr. Tuttle bought out his partners in the mid-1960s and was president until his retirement in 1980. He sold the franchise, and then it was bought out in 1995 by Coca-Cola, which is the only plant in the country that makes a Barq’s Diet Red Crème Soda today.
Here’s where the oldest house comes in. Robert was married to Martha Benedict Tuttle, the great-great granddaughter of William Betts. In 1804, when downtown was farmland, Betts built his house in Cincinnati’s West End. In the 1980s, the house, where Martha’s mother was born was crumbling and in danger of demolition. It was the oldest brick house in the City and not only represented Martha’s family, but a period of Cincinnati living history in danger of being lost. She used her fortune and influence to help restore and set up the foundation that became the Betts House Research Center. The house had survived the 1811 New Madrid Earthquake that shook the Ohio Valley. With sufficient funds it could certainly survive the 80s.
The fortune behind a popular kid’s drink now helps teach kids about the pioneer history of our wonderful city.