Teddy Roosevelt crammed a lot of living into his 60 years on this planet. He won the Medal of Honor (posthumously) for fighting in one war and the Nobel Peace Prize for ending another. He was a Harvard-educated rancher in the Wild West, a New York socialite, and a big game hunter and conservationist who authored 47 books, fathered six children and survived serious injury during an assassination attempt.
And he somehow found time to squeeze in being assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of New York, vice president, and president of the United States, too.
How did he do it all?
He drank coffee. Lots of coffee. Way more than any president before or since. (Although Dwight Eisenhower would place a close second.)
A popular brand of java promotes itself by saying, “America runs on Dunkin.” Teddy Roosevelt had more than a century’s head start on that concept.
Need a cup of joe to get going in the morning? Try TR’s daily coffee consumption and see how well you could keep up with him.
It started with deceptive moderation at breakfast with just one cup—which son Theodore, Junior, described as more the size of a bathtub than a regular cup—of half coffee, half milk, which he immediately sweetened with a staggering seven lumps of sugar. (In later years TR switched to saccharin to reduce his caloric intake.) He then proceeded to fill the cup of every companion at the table to the brim, regardless of whether they wanted coffee or not.
For many people, such a strong infusion of liquid rocket fuel would last for hours. But Teddy Roosevelt was just getting warmed up. It was nonstop cup after cup for the rest of the day. The National Park Service, the custodian of Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City, estimates he had drunk a gallon of coffee by the time he finally went to bed. Every day. Though how he was able to fall asleep with all that caffeine in his system remains a mystery.
There is even the claim from one person who swore he witnessed Teddy consume 40 cups in a single day, the equivalent of two and a half gallons.
If Teddy was addicted to the black bean, it wasn’t his fault. His father was a notorious caffeine lover who got his son hooked at a tender age. Teddy suffered from asthma as a small child. In the days before inhalers were available, coffee was believed to open the lungs and aid breathing. The future president began avidly drinking it at age 5. And he kept on drinking it from then on. (The child was also prescribed smoking cigars for the same medicinal reason, but that habit didn’t take hold.)
There’s a wonderful — and totally untrue — story that TR spoke the words that became famous in advertising history. The tale claims that while visiting Tennessee in 1907, the president was served the local favorite coffee blend named in honor of Nashville’s famous Maxwell House hotel. Teddy supposedly finished his cup (presumably one of many) and exclaimed with great satisfaction, “Good to the last drop!” The proprietor was allegedly so pleased with the remark, he decided to use it as the coffee’s slogan.
Truth in advertising: The credit for creating both the line and the myth surrounding it actually belongs to an unknown marketing genius.
What is known is TR was served coffee while visiting Andrew Jackson’s home, the Hermitage outside Nashville, on that 1907 trip. And he was heard to enthusiastically roar, “This is the kind of stuff I like to drink, by George, when I hunt bears!” Not a bad line itself, but hard to fit into a TV commercial.
Oddly enough, although he was profoundly dedicated to coffee, the drink is not associated with Teddy’s public persona. The way that, say, his second cousin Franklin Roosevelt is remembered for his jaunty cigarette holder or Ulysses Grant is for his love of the bottle.
Despite that odd historical oversight, Theodore Roosevelt kept consuming mass quantities of his beloved beverage right up until the end. As Vice President Thomas Marshall said, “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for had he been awake, there would have been a fight.”
A fight no doubt fueled by caffeine.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to HolyCow@insidesources.com.
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