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CuriosiD: What’s the Origin of the Boston Cooler?

In this week’s episode of CuriosiD, where WDET answers your questions about Detroit and the region, Dan Golodner from Huntington Woods asks:

I moved from Washington, D.C. to Detroit in the mid-’90. And I’ve always loved the root beer float and people said, ‘You have to try the Boston Cooler.’ So, I tried it and was like, ‘What’s the deal here? Why’s it called a Boston Cooler and not a ginger ale cooler or something like that? I’m just curious.”

Dan Golodner, Huntington Woods

The Short Answer:

The term “Boston Cooler” has a complicated history dating back at least as early as 1889. The way the drink was made and what it consisted of went through a few different iterations before it settled on the Vernors and vanilla ice-cream combination that we know today. At some point in the 1920s, Boston Cooler could refer to any sort of soda-pop and ice cream combination. For instance, Hires, a root beer company, promoted their own version of the Boston Cooler.

Courtesy of Keith Wunderlich

Hire’s Root Beer Boston Cooler

In 1967, the Vernors company copyrighted the term for the production of a ginger-ale flavored ice-cream bar.

Courtesy of Keith Wunderlich

Production of the “Frozen Boston Cooler” ice cream bar.

 

An Iconic Detroit Brand”

According to Keith Wunderlich, Founder of the Vernor’s Ginger Ale Collector’s Club, Detroit’s very own soft drink dates back to 1866.

Detroit-based pharmacist James Vernor created his famous recipe by aging a special blend of ginger extract in a barrel, leaving it to age while he went to fight in the American Civil War. For the first 30 years, James Vernor didn’t do too much with the beverage he created.

Overtime, the Vernor family took their special extract to market creating one of the first carbonated soft-drinks in the U.S. In fact, WDET stands on the former site of one of the last bottling plants Vernors had in Detroit.

 

What’s In A Name?

The earliest appearance of the term “Boston Cooler” in print comes from an article in a Sunday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called, “Latest Summer Drinks,” where a New York-based bartender claims he coined the phrase while making a cocktail of sarsaparilla and ginger ale. There were also a few companies that took the name for their own beverages in the early 1900s.

Eli Newman / WDET

 

Later on in the 1910s, soda fountains and ice cream parlors across the country would advertise for a different kind of “Boston Cooler,” which consisted of half a melon with a scoop of vanilla ice cream inside. This was one of the most popular occurrences of “Boston Cooler” and appeared in different markets around the country, possibly popularizing the term nationwide.

 

Eli Newman / WDET

Boston Cooler Recipe: halved cantaloupe with a scoop of ice cream

As the term Boston Cooler made its way around the country, other companies would appropriate it for their own products. One of the earliest examples is Saegertown Old Style Ginger Ale (now a bottled water company). This ad comes from 1928.

Eli Newman / WDET

A Saegertown Boston Cooler, one of the earliest examples of the drink as we know it today.

Slowly, Vernors caught onto the trend using “Boston Cooler” in their own advertisement. 

Eli Newman / WDET

An ad for a Vernor’s Boston Cooler, Detroit Free Press 05/29/1939

Even when Vernor’s came around to use the term, there wasn’t a uniform way to use the term, nor a precise definition of what a Boston Cooler really means.

Courtesy of Keith Wunderlich

Vernor’s Cooler with Ice Cream

Courtesy of Keith Wunderlich

Vernor’s Ginger Ale Boston Cooler with no ice.

It appears Boston Cooler is something that Detroit took into its own hands, creating the summertime staple that we know and love today.

Image credit: Courtesy of Keith Wunderlich

This post is a part of CuriosiD.

Meet CuriosiD - a series for the inquisitive. Our news team works with listeners like you to find answers to great questions about Detroit and the region.

Are you curious about the Detroit region or the people who live here? Ask your question >>

About the Author

Eli Newman

Reporter/Producer

Just a small guy with big ideas. Sharing content and culture at WDET 101.9 FM.

eli.newman@wdet.org   Follow @other_eli

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