J.T. Wagner: The German Soda Baron of Over-the-Rhine

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One of the oldest, but nearly forgotten, soft drink companies in the U.S. was founded in Cincinnati by a German immigrant.     Last night the Over-the-Rhine Museum hosted our quarterly 3 Acts in Over-the-Rhine event, where the audience learned about this amazing company from the founder’s great-great-great-granddaugther, Emily Wagner.   Wilhelm Theodore Wagner, its founder, immigrated from Thuringia, Germany, in 1849, with a brother, after the failed revolution, along with a huge wave of refugees.   Settling in Over-the-Rhine, he lived on Jackson, Milton, and Race Street.   The year the Civil War ended, Wagner served as postmaster.     Then, in 1868, armed with a secret recipe for mineral water, he started his company, in Over-the Rhine on Race Street.   The building still bears his company’s name over its entrance, and now houses the Rookwood Pottery.

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Wilhelm Theodore Wagner, Founder of the oldest soda pop

W.T. Wagner’s Sons is one of Cincinnati’s three Yankee soda pops.     The other, which I wrote about (July 27, 2016 “The Yankee Pop that Saved the Bett’s House”) was Barq’s Red Creme Soda, founded by Richard Tuttle in 1937.   But most of the soft drinks that we know of today were founded after the Civil War, and 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.     The soft drink industry was one that would help the South reinvent itself during Reconstruction after the Civil War.

 

Another one, Cino, Co., became a spinoff of local flavor company, Alex Fries, in the 1920s, and eventually became part of F&C International in Woodlawn.     Fries, another German immigrant, began his flavor business in Cincinnati in 1854, providing flavors to the many whisky distillers in the area. Cino produced a cream soda called Charm in the 1950s that was bottled in Sharonville.

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Before soft drinks, there was a large mineral or soda water industry in the U.S., mostly populated by regional manufacturers.     Water quality was a huge concern in the antebellum days of cholera epidemics. Mineral or soda water was considered safer than well or other flowing water.     The mineral water business was very competitive. In 1851, Cincinnati was host to eight mineral water factories with 64 employees who produced one hundred and five thousand dollars in annual output.

Thomas M. Rutherford, was among the first in Cincinnati, founding his business in 1845, which passed to his son John. George and John Postel, founded another mineral water business. For more than a decade, the brothers occupied the property at the north east corner of Lodge Alley and Gano between Walnut and Vine Streets. In 1856, the Postels sold out to Frederick Goosmann. Using their equipment he made his own mineral water and root beer. He competed with other Cincy manufacturers, like Hiram Nash, Chancey B. Owens and Charles Overdeik. In 1859, Henry Verhage joined Frederick Goosmann in his mineral water business, but Fredrick sold out to Henry in 1860.

Back to Wagner.   He married Marie Antoinette Leunburger, a Swiss immigrant, and had eight children, among them, three sons, Edward Wagner, William T. Wagner Jr., and Charles, who would run the business into the second generation.     After Wilhelm died early in 1871, only three years after opening his soda business, his sons took over, and eventually expanded into flavored sodas.

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Edward Wagner, the second generation of owners, son of the founder.

In 1910 Wagner’s variety of soda and mineral waters included a standard seltzer, Lithia, Vichy, Minnehaha, Club soda, Kissingen (named after a springs in Florida), and a ginger ale brand called Snap, which others tried to copy and who were sued by the Wagner company in the 1920s.     Wagner’s also had an Orange and Lemon Snap. Although Vichy was considered very healthy, it was apparently the most horrible of their products to drink.

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Wagner’s 1920 ads for Minnehaha water and Snap Ginger Ale.

As Prohibition came, Wagner’s Sons added to their line of flavored soft drinks, as the nation looked for interesting non-alcoholic beverages, and as soda fountains became more and more popular.

They had several types of Ginger ale.   They had a triple dry ginger ale, a golden ginger ale, and the old Snap brand.   They also had a Sparkling Lime Dry, a Lime Rickey, and a Lift cola.     Biggest customers were grocers like Kroger’s and A & P, as well as other big entertaintment venues like the Delta Queen riverboat and Crosley Field.

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Lift Cola one of the well known Wagner Sodas.

 

In 1934 they came out with a line of Wagner’s Fruit Quenchers in a large variety: Strawberry, Orange, Loganberry, Grape, Lemon Raspberry, and dry Lime.   At that time they also had root beer, sasparilla, cream soda, limintha, and golden ginger ale.     They expanded outside by taking on the local Cincinnati franchises of Orange Crush and Vernor’s Ginger ale.

 

In their print ads, Wagner’s touted the use of no additives, fresh fruit juice, and natural sugar. Their Fruit Quenchers were said to have the energy of a banana, an orange, and a piece of bread and butter.       They ground their own ginger from the root on site for their products.   They were even offered the local Coca-Cola franchise, but refused because they said they didn’t know what was actually in the Coca-Cola formula and thus couldn’t stand behind its freshness.

 

As the third generation was looking to retire, their brands were sold off.   The Lime Rickey was sold to Nehi Soft Drinks, and their Vichy water was sold to G & G .   In early 1960, Vernor’s purchased all outstanding stock of W.T. Wagner’s sons, and the Wagner brands like Lift, and Snap became largely forgotten.  But Wagner’s Sons played a pivotal role in the American soft drink industry.

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