Theodore Roosevelt was a mega coffee drinker from earliest childhood.
TR: For “Medicinal Purposes”
Coffee is non-alcoholic, but still perceived as an adult drink. It is common today for children to abstain from coffee drinking until way past puberty. Parents frequently tell their little ones, “It’ll stunt your growth.”
But back in the 1860s when Theodore Roosevelt was a young ‘un, he suffered from severe asthma. Doctors readily recognized the illness, the symptoms and even the prognosis. But it would be decades until they were able to discover viable treatment.
Nevertheless, they tried their best, according to the “conventional wisdom” of their profession.
Theodore Roosevelt’s parents were wealthy, educated and prominent New Yorkers, with access to the most progressive medical theories. Thus, TR was dosed with huge amounts of strong black coffee, duly prescribed by his doctors. Whether he became habituated to the caffeine (and he was always a frenetic individual), or he just loved the taste, he became a coffee drinker in huge proportions. He was said to drink a gallon of it a day (copiously infused with tablespoons of sugar) when he was in the White House!
As an aside, he was also prescribed big black cigars (for an asthmatic 6-year-old!) – probably the worst thing that could be suggested. But TR, as an adult, never smoked anything.
The Maxwell House Hotel
Nashville, TN, a tiny village when Andrew Jackson first set foot in it around 1789, had become a thriving and important midwestern capital by the mid 1850s. A first class hotel was essential.
The Maxwell House Hotel was undertaken in the late 1850s by the son of an old Jackson intimate. Construction began in 1859, but the Civil War put the project on hold, although the unfinished shell was used for a Union Army barracks. By 1869, however, the building was completed, and became the star of Nashville. It was five stories high, had 240 rooms featuring steam heat, gas lighting and a bathroom on every floor. It was loaded with mahogany and brass, and definitely up to Gilded Age snuff. Rooms, which included meals, cost a hefty $4 per day.
Its dining room, which became famous all by itself, offered a broad assortment of fine cuisine plus frontier-style game dishes.
Needless to say, by the 1880s, and into the early years of the 20th century, every “important person” traveling through the area made it a point to stay at the Maxwell House Hotel.
The Coffee Part
Coffee has been around (at least in North America) since before Columbus. It has always been a popular drink.
But in the mid 1880s, Joel Cheek, a Nashville resident, met a British coffee broker named Roger Nolley Smith, who could “smell” great coffee even when it was in the green bean stage. The two of them formed a partnership for developing the “perfect blend,” and in 1892, Cheek approached the management of the Maxwell House and offered him 20 pounds to try free of charge. They tried it; it sold out quickly, and they reverted to their old blend. But when their regular customers complained, Cheek and Smith found an exclusive customer of solid value.
Their new enterprise was so successful, that Cheek resigned from his coffee brokerage business and formed a new company as a coffee manufacturing grocery distributor. Their trademarked name Maxwell House Coffee was its flagship product, known nationwide.
The TR-Connection Part
Theodore Roosevelt was also a frenetic traveler who spent a good thirty years of his adult life on-the-road, as it were. As President, he visited dozens, if not hundreds of cities, towns and even some tiny places where the train stopped. He was definitely known to visit the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. So did several other Presidents at one time or another.
Whether President TR sipped his Maxwell House coffee at the Maxwell House Hotel in 1907 is debatable. Other legend has it that he was offered a cup when he visited Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation, verified as October 21, 1907. And whether he proclaimed it to be “good to the last drop” is also debatable.
TR, well known as a nifty coiner of phrases (“The man in the arena,” “the backbone of a chocolate éclair” et al), never claimed to have said it. “Good to the last drop” is a good slogan but it is not an uncommon one. It is said that Coca-Cola used that slogan as well.
Somewhere around 1915, Maxwell House Coffee began using its “Good to the last drop” slogan – but made no mention of Theodore Roosevelt.
As an aside, permission to use a famous person’s likeness or endorsement is relatively new. During the 1880s and 90s, any advertiser could use a photograph or sketch of said celebrity with impunity. POTUS Grover Cleveland tried in vain to have prohibitive legislation enacted, since his young, pretty wife was routinely “endorsing” stuff from pianos to corsets to arsenic tablets without so much as a by-your-leave.
By the 1930s, Maxwell House began running advertisements that claimed TR had “originated” its slogan. Or at least used it. Since TR had already been dead for more than a decade, he could not confirm or deny it.
Periodically, the TR connection to the slogan surfaces in some advertising, but Kraft/Heinz (who now owns the Maxwell House brand) has kept its distance from the alleged connection.
The Value of a Good Story
A good story, true, false, or a mixture, should never be dismissed as worthless. There is always value, as long as it does no harm, and it is acknowledged as the “story” it is. Most stories have at least a grain or two of truth, and may even be remembered longer than documented facts.
Few people today would care whether their Maxwell House coffee was endorsed by Theodore Roosevelt or not. We are lucky if people today even heard of Theodore Roosevelt.
Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – 1997 Basic Books
Dickson, Paul – Words from the White House – Walker and Company, 1013