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August 11th, 2015 by Piper Smith

Sarsaparilla is a vine native to tropical regions. Its root was the basis for the soft drink of the same name and is still used as flavoring in old-fashioned root beer. The plant was brewed as a medicinal tonic in the mid-1800s, believed to cure a variety of ailments ranging from consumption and bronchitis to scrofula- a strain of tuberculosis.


In 1839, Dr. Samuel P. Townsend and his brother Stefan began manufacturing and marketing Sarsparilla in Albany, NY. Despite the fierce competition of Bull’s, Bristol’s, Ayer’s and Hood’s, their business grew rapidly over a very short time. Within three years, Townsend claimed a massive workforce producing nearly 5000 bottles of the tonic a day and a network of worldwide distribution reaching as far as South America and Australia. Townsend declared his product superior to all others as it possessed invigorating qualities that created “new, pure, and rich blood”. The labels on the boxes not only lauded its unique curative powers, but also denigrated his competitors’ products by name as inferior.

More than half of the People’s Illustrated Almanac that his company produced annually was filled with testimonials from satisfied customers and patients. The product was so successful that it spawned imitators– specifically “Old Dr. Townsend’s Sarsparilla” – prompting the inclusion of the warning on the package.


“Look out for imitations and counterfeits.”

In 1848, the business headquarters moved from Albany to NYC and Townsend, known as the “Sarsaparilla Millionaire” built a lavish mansion on 5th avenue in Manhatten at the site now occupied by the Empire State Building.