Food History

The Sparkling Jewish History of Dr. Brown’s Soda

From medicinal tonic to nostalgic deli classic.

May 15, 2023
Photo by Julia Gartland

When June Hersh, author of the recent book Iconic New York City Jewish Food, walks into a Jewish deli, her “biggest decision is not rye bread with seeds or without seeds or Russian dressing or mustard,” she says. “[My] biggest decision is Cream Soda or Black Cherry.”

That she doesn’t need to specify the brand is a testament to the enduring staying power of one in particular: Dr. Brown’s, the kosher soda whose celery “Cel-Ray” flavor was nicknamed “Jewish champagne” by columnist Walter Winchell in the 1930s. Today, Dr. Brown’s sells five flavors—the aforementioned Black Cherry, Cream Soda, and Cel-Ray, as well as the less commonly sold Root Beer and Ginger Ale—mostly alongside cured meat sandwiches and knishes at Jewish delis. Each can or bottle is adorned with a black-and-white sketch of a New York City landmark: the Central Park Carousel, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge.

A product of a redesign by Herb Lubalin in the 1970s, the branding is unchanged to this day—and the soda's continuing existence depends on the old-New-York nostalgia of its drinkers. As this writer, who fondly recalls sipping on cans of Black Cherry with her Bronx-born-and-raised grandfather in a fluorescent-lit booth at Epstein’s in Yonkers, New York, set about writing this story, it began to seem like stubborn affection from deli-goers is all that keeps Dr. Brown’s afloat. The brand has no website, no social media, and no contact information; while newspaper records indicated that Canada Dry purchased the brand in 1982, a representative told me that to her knowledge they never had. I began to wonder if the soda appeared in beverage fridges through nostalgic magic alone.

As the legend goes, in the late 1860s a Dr. Brown—either a physician or a pharmacist—became worried about malnutrition among Jewish children in New York’s immigrant communities and developed a slurry of celery seeds and seltzer water mixed with sugar to make it go down easier. He peddled it from door to door and mouth to mouth until he secured a contract in 1869 with a bottling company on Water Street. There they began packaging it as Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic. (The name changed to Cel-Ray after an objection in the 1940s from the FDA over the word “tonic.”)

A sentimental product from its first distribution, Dr. Brown’s found a receptive audience that fondly recalled both carbonated and vegetal drinks from the old country. Between 1880 and 1920, according to Fordham University history professor Daniel Soyer, New York’s Jewish population swelled from 80,000 to 1.5 million people. A huge proportion of them lived in the Lower East Side, which was in 1900 the most densely populated neighborhood in the world. Most of those immigrants came from Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe, where carbonated water was reputed to be good for health. Naturally occurring in certain mineral springs, it was mostly elites who could afford to go “take the waters” for their ailments. Most Jews could not.

But the association between carbonation, health, and luxury stuck. In the late 18th century, after English scientist Joseph Priestly figured out how to “impregnat[e] water with fixed air,” the technology to create carbonated water, or seltzer—named for the German mineral spring town Seltser—became widely available on both sides of the Atlantic. Around the same time that the population of Jewish New York swelled, sellers began hawking bottles from pushcarts to their neighbors, and soda fountains sold glasses for as little as a cent. It was an affordable luxury self-prescribed for everything from a sour stomach to a long day. As soda fountains began adding syrups and sugars for additional charges, it became even more popular among children—and inched closer to what we know as soda today. The number of American bottling plants, many of which were owned and powered by the labor of Jewish immigrants, exploded, rising from 400 in 1869 to 2,800 in 1899 to over 7,600 in 1930.

“Dr. Brown’s soda comes in the middle of seltzer’s transition from medicine to the elite to a beverage for the masses,” explained Barry Joseph, the author of Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink.

As Ted Merwin chronicles in Pastrami on Rye, the cured meats for sale at delicatessens underwent a similar transformation from delicacy to delicatessen mainstay. There, Dr. Brown’s carved out a market. “Like a good wine elevates a good steak,” Hersh said, “Dr. Brown’s elevates delicatessen food. . .The science of sugar and carbonation pairs well with cutting the fat and elevating the taste of a pastrami sandwich, holding its own against a dill pickle.”

In fact, delis and Dr. Brown’s became so intertwined that there is a misperception, highlighted in a recent exhibit on deli history at the New York Historical Society, that the soda was sold in delis “exclusively.” But both door-to-door sales and select distribution deals persisted. By the late 1930s, as newspaper advertisements and classified postings for delivery drivers show, Cel-Ray was sold as a “healthful” drink in states as far-flung as Pennsylvania, Florida, and Louisiana. The rumor of exclusive deli sales likely comes from informal arrangements the brand made with the robust deli associations that existed in the first half of the 20th century—and as an explanation for the continued loyalty of Dr. Brown’s customer base.

After the Second World War, the soda industry began consolidating until there were fewer and fewer players left. As the number of bottling plants plummeted and the primacy of Coca-Cola rose, second- and third-generation Jewish Americans began seeing Dr. Brown’s as the drink of their parents’ generation. “People began defining their lifestyles through consumption,” Joseph said. “Coca-Cola was the drink of America, a way for white ethnic groups previously excluded—like Jews and Italians—to drink their way into America.”

Dr. Brown’s managed to hang on during this period through its deli sales, but mentions of it in the media faded away. In 1977, in an attempt to survive waning numbers of new delis in New York, the brand made its first real attempt at expansion by selling to supermarkets and creating a national advertising campaign. That campaign pulled at the heartstrings (and the soda’s medicinal roots): “Imported from the old neighborhood,” read one ad. “For prompt, temporary relief of the minor pain of nostalgia,” said another.

It was at least a moderate success—while Dr. Brown’s didn’t rise to prominence to rival soda’s other doctor, it is to this day still available in some grocery stores. In 1982, Canada Dry saw enough promise to acquire the brand and lead another expansion push. By the early ‘80s, turn-of-the century claims about soda’s healthful benefits had been long debunked, and mentions of Cel-Ray’s vitamin content vanished from their packaging and advertisements.

In 1986, Harry Gold—Dr. Brown’s marketing director at the time—revealed to the Los Angeles Times that the company has no records of their eponymous founder actually existing. But that didn’t stop the company from capitalizing on the old-New York mystique of the good doctor. A series of ads run in New York magazine in that same year attributed quotes to Dr. Brown, printed alongside condensation-covered images of the cans. “Eventually, each of us comes to a fork in the Path of Life: One way leads to Banality; the other to Dr. Brown’s Soda,” one says. “I am no ‘bottler’; I am a Libationist, and bringing Dr. Brown’s Soda into the world is not my vocation; it is my Destiny,” reads another.

Still, some choose to believe in the legend of the doctor. “Did I believe in Never Never Land or the Tooth Fairy? Until you prove to me that there wasn’t a real Dr. Brown, I will believe it,” June Hersh, the Jewish food writer, said. “You need to believe in fables and fairy tales.”

At some point not long after their 1986 advertising push, Dr. Brown’s was sold to the Honickman Companies, a private corporation that owns the brand to this day and which didn’t answer my phone calls or emails. A bottling company in Los Angeles told me they thought they had once produced the soda and put me in touch with a consultant who they said might know more. Eventually, after he suggested I call another, I got in touch with Charley Mayes, the director of company-owned brands at Honickman. He told me that a website is coming soon, and that sales in 2022 were up 15.7% over the previous year, an encouraging number that still likely reflects diminished sales from deli visits during the pandemic.

While today’s grocery store shelves are stocked with small soda brands, many of which, not unlike Dr. Brown’s back in the day, claim to have health benefits ranging from prebiotics to antioxidants, it’s still relatively rare to see Dr. Brown’s. With no advertising budget and a demographically dwindling fanbase, is it enough to survive solely on deli sales and the nostalgia of America’s diasporic Jewish population? Even that demographic is deeply regional: According to Jimmy Garcia, a waiter at Los Angeles’ famed Canter’s Deli, only about a quarter of customers order a Dr. Brown’s soda. “I think it’s a big thing from the East Coast,” he said. “People come and say, ‘Oh, they’ve got Dr. Brown’s,’ and maybe they’re older.”

A symbol for many third- and fourth-generation Jewish Americans, Dr. Brown himself may resemble the Tooth Fairy—part of the fairy tale of Jewish diasporic history, glimpsed in a deli fridge and sipped alongside a sandwich that somehow now costs $23. I remember watching my grandfather select a can of Dr. Brown’s diet Black Cherry, checking the nutritional label, and drinking half. Just as Joseph described mid-century ethnic minorities drinking themselves into an assimilated Americanness defined by consumption, Dr. Brown’s provides an avenue for secularized Jews to recall their own heritage and difference.

Or, as Dr. Brown himself said (at least according to a 1986 advertisement): “I drink Dr. Brown’s soda, therefore I am.”

What’s your go-to nostalgic beverage? Share in the comments!
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Lyra Walsh Fuchs

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Hershsclassichotdogs &. January 24, 2024
How come I can not
Find Dr Brown root beer can any
Wear , the last time I saw Dr Brown root beer can was in Katz deli.
I'm looking for. Doctor Brown can
Soda whole sale root beer and black cherry is what my customers wants
Who sell it wholesale. Up state NY area
Mike K. July 5, 2023
I have been drinking Dr. Brown' Black Cherry with a corned beef or pastrami sandwich for as long as I can remember (79 years) and never in New York! Chicago as a visitor and Milwaukee as a resident. Now still a regular in Florida.
crsinbos May 31, 2023
There is also Fox's U-bet syrup which was the only chocolate syrup my Mom would buy. It is now available in groceries around Boston. I rarely have an egg cream, but that's only syrup to use!
walshle May 15, 2023
What a fun article!