Who’s the Tom Tucker on your Mint Ginger Ale?

The current label of Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale, a staple of Western Pennsylvania pop drinkers.
The current label of Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale, a staple of Western Pennsylvania pop drinkers. Courtesy of Brian Butko.

Pittsburghers love quirky traditions, so when cruising the soda pop aisle in local stores, you’re bound to see green bottles of Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale squeezed between the major brands. The logo of a dapper man in top hat and bow tie has been smiling back at us for nearly 90 years from pop bottle labels and painted wall signs—but whose face is it?

Mention Tom Tucker these days and most people think of the TV anchor on “Family Guy.” Older generations remember Tommy Tucker, a big band leader who might pass for the pop-bottle icon. Long-time baseball fans might recall a star first-baseman of a century ago. The origin of the soda pop name, however, may be simpler than those.

Tom Tucker was one of many soft drinks to emerge in the 1920s, born as alternatives to outlawed liquor during Prohibition. Iconic local brand Regent was founded in 1919, as were many others, as the ban on alcohol loomed.[1] Some drinks even had names suggestive of liquor, like Tom Collins Jr. soda pop. Pittsburgh’s Independent Brewing switched from making Silver Top beer to pop, including one called Wine-Ola.[2] Ginger ale was the most popular alternative: Pittsburgh Brewing turned to making Tech Ginger Ale,[3] and Canada Dry (introduced to the U.S. in 1919) called itself “The Champagne of Ginger Ales.”

A 1920 industry article noted about Pittsburgh, “Scores of former saloons have been transformed into ‘soft drink’ places and the change, while rather startling, is being accepted in good nature by the one-time habit patrons of the places in the days when beer and other alcoholic beverages were liberally dispensed.” Even taverns in big hotels like the Fort Pitt and William Penn were turned into soda fountains (whether or not they offered illicit options too).[4] After Prohibition ended, many of the soft drink makers carried on by producing mixers for cocktails, like Regent’s 4% and its Supreme Mint Ginger Ale.

A 1929 ad for Tom Tucker ginger ale did not yet include the iconic man in top hat.
A 1929 ad for Tom Tucker ginger ale did not yet include the iconic man in top hat. Courtesy of Brian Butko.

The Tom Tucker brand is first seen in an ad from October 1929 for its Pale Dry Ginger Ale—though no man is pictured on the bottle. It was manufactured by Keystone Bottling and Supply,[5] which back in 1922 made the news twice: a raid on the Keystone plant found a still and two gallons of moonshine,[6] and a pedestrian was struck by Keystone truck driver Sidney Harris, 28, who was arrested.[7]

The still is of little consequence—many an individual experimented with making moonshine during Prohibition—but from this incident, we learn Keystone’s proprietor was William Americus.

Harris is more critical to our tale: he and his mother are known as the founders of the Tom Tucker Beverage Company and for inventing the famous Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale.[8] However, the paper trail tells a somewhat different story.

Bottle made by Glenshaw Glass, c. 1935, with a young-looking Tom on front and “It’s Tom Tucker Time” on back.
Bottle made by Glenshaw Glass, c. 1935, with a young-looking Tom on front and “It’s Tom Tucker Time” on back. History Center museum collections, 2011.7.1.

A trademark for the top-hatted imagery was filed in 1935 for soft drinks made by the “Tom Tucker Beverage Company composed of the following members, William Americus and Sidney Harris” at 433 Melwood St., site of old Luna Park.[9] The drawing is lined for black and flesh tints and the trademark is described as “a fanciful portrait of a human head with top hat.”[10]

Americus and Harris also trademarked the term “Southern Style” for ginger ale in 1933 but claimed first use in 1929.[11] The intent was that Southern meant sweet like a mint julep, not mild like dry ginger ales.

Much later, in 1949, the company trademarked Tom Tucker lettering “outlined in green” but claimed first use even further back, on Dec. 28, 1927.[12]

At some point in the early 1930s, Tom Tucker became an independent company. By 1932, Tom Tucker Beverages was making not only ginger ale but flavors like Tom Tucker Raspberry and Root Beer.[13] Contradicting that, in May 1933, Keystone Bottling had bought a one–story brick building on Melwood Street and was named as “manufacturers and distributors of Tom Tucker ginger ale.”[14]

The bigger question is: why had Tom Tucker Beverage Company even been formed? Had the brand been Harris’s idea at Keystone so he broke off to start his own company? If so, why was Americus part of the new company? Whatever drew them to use the name, they weren’t the first: Tom Tucker has been used for everything from steel fabricators to churches, youth cheerleading to hotel chains.

The inspiration behind all these is most likely Little Tommy Tucker, an 18th-century nursery rhyme about a boy singing for his supper. The name came to represent any orphan, and by the 1910s had spawned a clothing fad, especially shirts, hats, and corduroy suits all inspired by the character. To anyone looking to name a company, it was familiar, in the public domain, and it had the power of alliteration.[15]

Tommy Tucker made the cover of Billboard magazine numerous times, this one from 1942. At Kennywood, he holds the record for the largest crowd to see a musician when he played there on Decoration Day, 1936. From Billboard.
Tommy Tucker made the cover of Billboard magazine numerous times, this one from 1942. At Kennywood, he holds the record for the largest crowd to see a musician when he played there on Decoration Day, 1936. From Billboard.

Another logical inspiration for the image could have been popular big band leader Tommy Tucker, who played the glass dance floor at Sanders Inn, Aspinwall, as early as 1929. By 1932 he was a regular on Pittsburgh radio and played Kennywood so often in the ’30s that he was called the park’s band leader. His radio appearances are usually listed as Tom Tucker, and newspapers in 1936 joked that he sings for his supper at the park, just like the nursery rhyme. He even opened every performance with the announcement, “It’s Tommy Tucker time,” which was likewise the tag line for Tom Tucker pop. It’s logical that he might lend his image to a drink of the same name—yet no connection can be found.[16] The oddest tangential connection was a profile of Adam West (TV’s Batman) in the Pittsburgh Press decades later that said he’d “emceed Tommy Tucker’s TV show and delivered milk on the side (instead of ginger ale).” Tracking down Tommy’s daughter, Trudy Thomson, she likewise said the naming was coincidence, that her dad had no connection to the pop business.[17]

Whoever it was meant to be, Harris embraced the imagery by driving his sales route in a Chevy coupe with a Tom Tucker mannequin beside him, complete with top hat and tuxedo. Such self-promotion served the company well and it grew steadily. In 1940, Tom Tucker announced plans to build a bottling plant on Center Avenue near Shadyside Hospital. In 1957, it began selling Tom Tucker Dietetic.[18] By 1960, Tom Tucker was the local bottler of Schweppes, and when Squirt Bottling sold its local plant on the East End for a school, Tom Tucker acquired that franchise too. Partner Robert Harris said then that Tom Tucker was also now franchise-bottling Diet-Rite Cola, Hires Root Beer, and Orange Crush.

Bottling more brands was a necessity for an independent bottler since customers were by then choosing cans, plus Pittsburgh was known as a “soft” soft drink market with per capita consumption half that of Philadelphia. Franchising several brands also allowed one-stop sales-and-service on a variety of products. By the late 1960s, with most local bottlers out of business, Tom Tucker had grown to 60 employees and sales topping $1 million.[19]

Natrona’s Mint Julep and Mint Ginger Ale: same formula but with and without green food coloring. Available in the History Center museum shop, photo by Brian Butko.
Natrona’s Mint Julep and Mint Ginger Ale: same formula but with and without green food coloring. Available in the History Center museum shop, photo by Brian Butko.

With consolidation a constant in the industry, Tom Tucker was sold in 1978 to a bottling company in Ohio.[20] Not liking retirement, Sidney Harris went back to work at Natrona Bottling, one of the rare local bottlers still operating.[21] Paul Bowser and his brothers had bought the company in 1939, which was known, then and now, for its Red Ribbon-brand sodas.[22]

Natrona Administrative Manager Mary Jane Zdilla started with the company in 2002 when Paul Bowser asked her to leave her hairdresser job. She recalls, “Sidney was such a character. He and Paul were best friends.”

Mary Jane says the inspiration for Tom Tucker was the nursery rhyme: “Sidney had two sons, so they knew Tom Tucker the storybook character.” Sidney’s son Leroy Harris agrees: “My father told me that the name Tom Tucker came from a nursery rhyme.”[23]

Sidney brought two formulas with him to Natrona—the famous Mint Ginger Ale and Champayno, which had been inspired by one of those Prohibition-era drinks, Cham-Pay from Wilmington, Delaware.[24] They renamed the mint ginger ale as Plantation Style Mint Julep but still used green bottles like the original. They used 28-oz. bottles with little recipe books attached featuring concoctions like Mint Cranberry Punch, Mint Julep Apple Wine Cooler, and Mint Flavored Spicy Burgundy Sauce for Apple Pie.

Bauser (“bow-ZAY”) Champayno from Natrona Bottling. Photo by Brian Butko.
Bauser (“bow-ZAY”) Champayno from Natrona Bottling. Photo by Brian Butko.

For Champayno, Bowser added Bauser to its name—his last name but spelled differently so it could be pronounced “bow-ZAY.” Paul joked that “it was named for his French cousin.”[25]

Tom Tucker founder Sidney Harris died at age 100 in 2003. After Natrona owner Paul Bowser died in 2008, an investor bought it and the company has been run since 2010 by Vito Gerasole. It’s still made in the same former Nash automobile garage, and Natrona continues to sell a variety of flavors under its Red Ribbon brand. They also still use an old method for producing bubbles: pinpoint carbonation, done by dropping dry ice into the mix (as opposed to just adding CO2 gas from a tank), which makes the bubbles smaller and the sensation smoother.[26]

Meanwhile, the Ohio company that bought Tom Tucker Mint Ginger Ale had been bought by Beverage Management, Inc., which was then bought by Brooks of Holland, Michigan, which was later bought by Cadbury Schweppes.[27] Parts of that were spun off to form the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, of which the Brooks plant is one of 22 bottling facilities producing nearly 50 brands including 7UP, A&W, Canada Dry, Hires, IBC, RC, Schweppes, Stewart’s, and Vernors.[28] Tom Tucker is lost among those better-known brands but sells well enough to stay on local store shelves. (The company did not respond for comment to this article.)

Tom Tucker advertising signs have faded and been painted over in recent years, including a popular ghost sign on Carson Street near 10th Street. One has been restored in Springdale at Flashback Pinball, and a beautiful new one has been added to a wall in Braddock by prolific mural artist Anthony Purcell.

Natrona still makes the Mint Julep, though when green bottles became unavailable, a green coloring was added to the drink.[29] The company has started making a Mint Ginger Ale with the same formula that’s clear, with no added coloring.[30] Mary Jane says both are popular as a mixer for highballs, to baste hams and kielbasa, and as a cure for upset stomachs, a long-time Pittsburgh remedy.

Champayno was reduced to smaller 6.3-oz. bottles, and now has been discontinued except for what remains in stores. Natrona’s flagship product, Red Ribbon Cherry Supreme, is popular along with Jamaica’s Finest Ginger Beer—regular and hot. Less common flavors are Pennsylvania Punch and Almond Cream.

So which is better—Tom Tucker or Natrona’s Mint Julep/Mint Ginger Ale? The pinpoint carbonation and use of sugar (instead of corn syrup) in Natrona’s drinks make the locally made pop smoother and more flavorful. But for traditionalists, Tom Tucker still lines supermarket shelves.

A new Tom Tucker wall sign was painted in 2012 by muralist Anthony Purcell on the side of Comet News in Braddock. He’s painted and restored dozens of wall signs throughout the city. Courtesy of Anthony Purcell.
A new Tom Tucker wall sign was painted in 2012 by muralist Anthony Purcell on the side of Comet News in Braddock. He’s painted and restored dozens of wall signs throughout the city. Courtesy of Anthony Purcell.

Brian Butko is Director of Publications at the Heinz History Center, and author of books on diners, Isaly’s, Roadside Attractions, and Kennywood.

[1] M. Ferguson Tinsley, “Auction, lawsuit cap pop bottler’s legacy in Swissvale,” July 7, 2004, p. EZ1-2’ “Regent Crowns Beverage Comeback,” Pittsburgh Press, November 10, 1982, p. C12. Regent was bought by Cott Corp. of New Haven, Conn., in 1971, then by the DePasquale family in 1981, and shuttered in 2004.
[2] “Pittsburgh Items,” The Beverage Journal, September 1920, p. 103.
[3] “Pittsburgh Items,” The Beverage Journal, September 1920, p. 103. For more, see Edward P. Vidunas, “Tech Food Products: The History of the Iron City Brewing Company”.
[4] “Pittsburgh Items,” The Beverage Journal, September 1920, p. 103.
[5] Ad, The Pittsburgh Press, October 11, 1929, p. 33. Keystone traces back to the 1870s.
[6] October 1922. The Keystone plant was at 24 Charles St.
[7] September 4, 1922.
[8] Jon Vandenburgh, “Obituary: Sidney Harris / Soda bottler and inventor,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 05, 2003.
[9] First use: 1935. First use in commerce: 1935  Filing Date May 9, 1935. Registration Date November 12, 1935.
[10] Trademark registered November 1935 but noted as first used on March 1, 1935; classified as “020101, 020121, 090502.” The image trademark was renewed in 1975 but expired in 1996.
[11] Word Mark SOUTHERN STYLE (EXPIRED)  : GINGER ALE, A NON-ALCOHOLIC, NON-CEREAL, MALTLESS BEVERAGE SOLD AS A SOFT DRINK AND SIRUP AND EXTRACT FOR MAKING THE SAME. FIRST USE: 1929. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 1929  Filing Date January 17, 1933   Registration Date June 6, 1933 Owner (REGISTRANT) SIDNEY HARRIS AND WILLIAM AMERICUS COMPOSED OF SIDNEY HARRIS AND WILLIAM AMERICUS, BOTH U.S. CITIZENS PARTNERSHIP UNITED STATES 24 ELMORE STREET PITTSBURGH PENNSYLVANIA. Address was given as 24 Elmore St.
[12] The lettering was registered for “nonalcoholic, noncereal, maltless beverages sold as soft drinks and sirups, extracts, and concentrates for making the same … the lining on the drawing represents the color green.” It did not get registered until 1952, was renewed in 1972 but expired in 1993.
[13] See for example May 16, 1930, Daily Notes, Canonsburg, Pa., p. 12; June 5, 1932, Pittsburgh Press, Society Sec., p. 14.
[14] “Realty Concern Moves Into Clark Building,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 4, 1933, p. 3.
[15] A minor connection to pop culture at the time was the release at the end of 1934 of a quirky Laurel and Hardy film, Babes in Toyland, featuring a mix of fairy tale characters that included Tom Tucker in a minor role.
[16] Vince Leonard, “A Success? Adam Ribs You Not,” Pittsburgh Press, March 31, 1966. Tucker was actually a stage name for Gerald Duppler, and in fact, inherited it from the former leader of their band, The Californians (later to be the Tommy Tucker Orchestra) and Tucker recorded over one thousand sides, per Christopher Popa, “Tommy Tucker: The Fundamental Things Apply,” posted January 2006.
[17] Correspondence with Trudy Thomson, December 29, 2017.
[18] The diet version used Sucaryl, a calorie-free sweetener popular in drinks like Canada Dry Glamor and Nehi Diet-Rite but later removed for safety concerns.
[19] Jack Markowitz, “Of Soda and Big Values,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 6, 1968, p. 21.
[20] Robert Harris obituaries, 1995.
[21] Founded in 1904 as Natrona Bottling Works.
[22] “A Visit to Natrona Bottling Co.” posted October 15, 2015.
[23] Correspondence with Leroy Harris, January 5, 2018.
[24] “Bizarre Names for the New Soft Drinks,” Printer’s Ink, June 26, 1919, p. 77. The Amendment was ratified in 1919 but took effect in 1920.
[25] Katie Blackley, “Natrona Bottling Company Thriving On Nostalgia And Tradition After 112 Years,” http://wesa.fm, posted October 18, 2016, notes that it began as Natrona Bottling Works, but in 1939, John Bowser acquired the company and renamed it to Natrona Bottling Company.
[26] For more on Natrona, see Bob Batz, Jr., “Natrona ‘pop shop’ is last of the glass acts,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 17, 2007. For a look inside Natrona Bottling, see Sebak’s 2006 segment, “What Makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh? Natrona Bottling Company.”
[27] Stephen Kloosterman, “Family members to share story of Brooks Beverage Management at the Meijer Lecture Series held at Hope College,” Holland Sentinel, Sep 10, 2011.
[28] Stats, acc. Jan. 18, 2018.
[29] Glass bottles now come from The Bottle Shop from Mandeville, La.
[30] The formulas are the same but the nutritional info differs due to the artificial color containing carbohydrates.

2 thoughts on “Who’s the Tom Tucker on your Mint Ginger Ale?

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful article about my all time favorite “pop”! My mother always gave us Tom Tucker for an upset stomach. I now live in the Atlanta area and thankfully can purchase my Tom Tucker Mint Gingerale online!

  2. Thanks for this article! I’m one of Sidney Harris’ great-grandchildren (and Bobby Harris’ Grandson) and this is so well-researched and such a detailed history of our family’s business. I’ve been lucky enough to find Tom Tucker at Save-Mor Beer Dist. who graciously shipped several cases to NY for my wedding last month and I actually have a 50-some year old bottle of Champayno in my collection as well.

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