The story begins with a pharmacist in London named Gustave Mellin. Like many other pharmacists of his day, Gustave was looking for a magic elixir that might make people healthy but which would surely make him rich. In the second half of the nineteenth century, all over Europe and America, ambitious young men were throwing chemicals into pots and kettles and selling the resultant concoctions to unsuspecting guinea pigs (aka customers). Some of these latter day alchemists just made people ill. A few killed people. And a very few got very rich.
It was an Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John Pemberton, who cooked up Coke-a-Cola in his back yard in 1886. And Caleb Bradham of New Bern, North Carolina invented Pepsi Cola in his pharmacy during the summer of 1893. In Cincinnati in 1886 Robert Johnson, who had worked as a pharmacists’ apprentice, joined with his brothers James and Mead in forming Johnson and Johnson, to sell their inventions of band aids and first aid kits. But the guiding light for Gustave Mellin was Henri Nestle, a Swiss citizen who in 1867, made his reputation and his fortune by saving a premature infant with a recipe of powdered milk and ground up wheat. Nestle's formula released the proteins trapped in wheat by grinding it into a powder, and thus making them easier for the baby to digest. And, though Nestle and Mellin did not realize it yet, this also made it possible to transport the wheat proteins over vast distances and store them for long periods.
Nestle sold his product by warning first time mothers that “impure milk is one of the chief causes of sickness among babies.” Which was absurd. Babies get sick because their immune systems aren't fully functional, yet. But we're talking marketing, here, not science. And in London that other Swiss citizen, Gustav Mellin began selling his own version of Nestle's formula, which he inventively called “Mellin’s Food”. Mellin marketed his product with free samples, and a pseudo-scientific booklet convincing new mothers his formula was better for their babies than breast milk. God only knows how humans survived for the previous 2 million years without the powder. Anyway, within a few years Mellin became Nestle’s principle competitor. And the success of Mellin attracted the attention of a young, dashing, handsome, ambitious and driven Englishman from the tiny village of Ruardean, in Gloucestershire.
James Horlick (above) began as an apprentice at the feet of the master, and what he learned from Mellin was that marketing was at least as important as the invention itself. Probably more. But working for somebody else was no way to get rich, and in 1873 James quit his job and immigrated to America, to join his younger brother William (below) in Chicago. And James took with him a little something he had been working on.
In 1860, for the last time in history, the value of American agricultural goods was greater than the products from her factories. And amazingly this shift happened at same time that American farms were becoming the breadbasket of the world. Chief among this new bounty which was flooding the world markets was American wheat and rye. And that is why James and William Horlick had emigrated to America. See, most of the world's capital for investment was still in England, but most of the world's plant protein was now in America. And within weeks after James arrived in Chicago the brothers set up J and W Horlicks to market their new wonder baby food, “Diastroid”. Okay, the name needed a little work.
First, what William and James needed to make their wonder food was a community with cheap property values, a ready supply of clean water, an already industrialized work force, and easy access to their raw materials (wheat and rye) and to shipping routes, to get their product to their customers. They found just what they were looking 60 miles north of Chicago, where the Root River enters Lake Michigan, in Racine, Wisconsin.
The city had been incorporated in 1848 with a population of 3,000, and by 1870 was approaching 30,000, filling up with English, Danes, Czechs, Swedes and Norwegians. The foundation of the economy was the town’s harbor and rail connections. Early on, Fanning Mills built heavy farm equipment here, including machines to separate the wheat and barley from its chaff, the slurry of which is called a malt. That created a pool of trained factory workers and the machines they used, which attracted Jerome Case who built his heavy equipment factory there, and S.C. Johnson who established his cleaning products factory in Racine.
So, in 1877 the Horlick brothers opened their single story factory in Racine, making "Horlick's Infant and Invalids Food" and got ready to greet success. Okay, it was a little slow in coming. Oh, the baby formula business was doing okay, but it was by now a very competitive market and not the rocket to success that James had dreamed of along the banks of the River Wye, back in England. Still, in 1883, James’ preeminence in the field of baby food had been confirmed with a new patent, thus effectively limiting their competition in America.
In 1890 James returned to England to be closer to the money, and to handle the European marketing of their slowly growing infant cuisine empire. In 1908 Horlick’s opened a new, much larger plant in Racine (above). And they just kept plugging away, searching for that marketing angle that would make them rich beyond their wildest dreams.
They thought they had hit the mark in 1909 when explorers Robert Peary (above), Amundsen and Scott all three pick Horlick’s product to supply protein for their assaults on the North and South Poles. Overnight Horlick's was in the forefront of the "health food" craze. And it remains a popular health food item to this day. That same year, 1909, the brothers opened a new plant in New Zealand, to supply mothers and explorers down under with portable protein. But that was not the advancement that changed human life, and made the brothers filthy. filthy rich.
That revolutionary event happened a few years later, It’s unclear who did it first, but my bet is that it was the new player on the stage. They were called "soda jerks" because in the early years they were required to jerk on the levers to dispense the carbonated water that was the main ingredient of their trade - soft drinks, as opposed to hard liquor.
But some conservative Christians even objected to young men and women spending their Sunday afternoons consuming "soft drinks" and frowned on the consumption of carbonation and caffeine on "the lords day", which is why the Ice Cream Sundae was invented, and the Malted Milk Shake - shaken not carbonated. I doubt that it was an employee of Horlick who first made the discovery of the latter, else their name would have been enshrined in company legend. Besides, after all, it was a small step and may have been taken in several places at about about the same time.
Remember the Horlick formula was a concoction of dried ground wheat, just-sprouted barley malt and powdered milk, which was then mixed in water or liquid fresh milk at the point of use.
So let us just accept that some unknown genius added ice cream. After all, everything tastes better with ice cream, doesn't it? Except maybe green beans. And thus was born the malted milk shake.
I doubt that most people today realize that everything “malted” can only be made under license from Horlick’s, including malted milk, malted milk balls, malted tablets or disks and malted “shakes”. Malted is a flavor that is owned. It was invented. It does not appear anywhere in nature.
It started out as baby food, then became a health food before it became an unhealthy treat of magical proportions. And it gave all those soda jerks something to serve with the ice cream Sundaes they had invented, because in the conservative core of middle America carbonated water was considered too racy a drink to be served on a Sunday.