In the Spring of 1886, Atlanta was still smarting and depressed by its defeat in the Civil War. The South turned en masse for solace to religion and patent medicines. the cure-all “snake oils” of the North tended to be heavy on alcohol – an unacceptable ingredient for most Bible-thumpin’, anti-demon rum Southerners. Under pressure from temperance groups, patent medicine makers in the South began replacing alcohol with another active ingredient that was believed to be safe, healthy and morally pure. . .Cocaine.
Atlanta druggist John Styth Pemberton had been reformulating his “French Wine Coca – Ideal Brain Tonic” to remove the alcohol, yet replace it with something that would give a nice kick. He had found it in the African kola nut – a stimulant with the reputation of being a wonder hangover cure. He blended it with coca extract, bringing together the two strongest stimulants know at the time. The concoction was indeed a potent “brain tonic.” Unfortunately, it tasted terrible. So the grey-bearded druggist spent six months hunched over a 30-gallon brass kettle in his backyard mixing up dozens of concoctions, before finally settling on what he decided was the ideal mixture to mask the flavor of the potently psychoactive mix.
The result was Coca-Cola, a thick, sweet, brown syrup, packaged in reused beer bottles. Pemberton sold it to other Atlanta drugstores for 25 cents a bottle. The druggists would sell the entire bottle, or administer individual doses of the “Intellectual Beverage and temperance Drink,” often mixed into a glass of tap water to make it a little easier to get down. It became moderately successful as a pick-me-up and hangover remedy.
That summer an earthshaking event occurred in one of Coke’s outlets in Atlanta, Jacob’s Drug Store. A customer came in complaining of a severe hangover. Handed a bottle of Coca-Cola syrup, he asked Willis E. Venable, the soda fountain man, to open it and mix it with water right there so he could get immediate relief. Rather than walk to the tap in the back, Venable asked if the man minded soda water. The distressed customer wasn’t particular. He gulped the fizzing mixture and said, “Say, this is really fine. Much better than using plain water like the label says.” Word got around, and people started requesting the bubbly version all over town.
Pemberton had been marketing Coca-Cola as a medicine “for all nervous afflictions – Sick Headache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholia, Etc.,” He hadn’t even considered that it might be drunk for refreshment recreation. But he saw the opportunity and jumped. His ads changed to “Coca-Cola makes a delicious, exhilarating, refreshing, and invigorating beverage” in addition to touting its medicinal qualities.
That same summer, Atlanta passed its first “dry laws,” making alcohol illegal. Coke syrup sales jumped from 25 gallons that year to 1,049 gallons the next, largely through the marketing efforts of Pemberton’s associate and financial backer Frank M. Robinson, who coined the name and drew the script “Coca-Cola” logo that is still used today. Robinson was Coke’s real “secret ingredient” in its early years. He was a shrewd salesman and promoter.
Meanwhile, despite consuming large quantities of his “health tonic,” Pemberton’s health began to fail in 1887. Coke sales were still not brisk enough to make him financially solvent, so for a very modest amount of money, he sold two-thirds of his interest in the business to Willis Venable, the man who first brought the fizz to Coke. Pemberton’s inventory, which he drew up at the time of the transfer, gives a clue to Coca-Cola’s closely guarded “secret ingredients”: oil of spice, oil of lemon, oil of lime, oil of nutmeg, fluid extract of nutmeg, fluid extract of coca leaves, vanilla, citric acid, orange elixir, oil of neroli, and caffeine.
Pemberton died destitute on August 16, 1888, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Before he died, he sold the last of his stock to Asa Candler, a more prosperous fellow druggist. With the help of two partners, Candler quietly bought up all the rest of the stock in Coca-Cola from Venable and other investors. Full ownership of the company – lock, stock and secret formula – cost Candler a grand total of $2,300.
Candler was a devout Christian and teetotaler, and he wholeheartedly believed that Coke was the ideal Temperance drink and all-purpose medicine. He and Frank Robinson immediately set to work reformulating Pemberton’s original recipe to improve the taste and shelf life while keeping the same heart-pounding jolt of coca leaves, kola nuts and caffeine.
Candler reformulated Coke again a few years later when anti-cocaine hysteria hit a peak. Newspapers carried shameless stories about crazed blacks rampaging with insatiable lust, superhuman strength, and even enhanced marksmanship as a result of cocaine. Slang terms for an order of Coca-Cola quickly expanded from “a Coke” to “a cold dope” and “a shot in the arm”; soda fountains became “hop joints” and “dope stores.” In 1903, Coca-Cola quietly switched to a new recipe that used coca leaves that had already been stripped of cocaine. (Coca-Cola continues to use spent coca leaves. It obtains them from the Stepan Chemical Company in New Jersey, the only legal processor of medical cocaine in the United States.)
Right about this time, a soldier named Benjamin Franklin Thomas, stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, saw the Cubans drinking something called Pina Fria from bottles. Suffering from Coke withdrawal, he wondered: Why not bottle it premixed in fizzy water and make it available everywhere? When Thomas got back to the U.S., he and a partner named Joseph Whitehead called on Candler who, seeing little profit in the venture, signed over bottling rights to them. Thomas and Whitehead immediately began selling regional bottling franchises.
Candler, in a mixture of Southern Methodist piety and good business sense, began lobbying aggressively for anti-alcohol laws all over the South. By 1907, 825 of the 994 counties in the former Confederacy had gone “dry.” Sales of Coca-Cola soared.
It’s success spawned dozens of imitators. In 1916 alone, busy Coke attorneys went after 153 wannabes with names like cafe Cola, Afri-Cola, Charcola, Co-Co-Colian, Dope, Kola Kola, Fig Cola, Sola Cola, Candy cola, Toca-Cola, Cold Cola, Kos Kola, Cay-Ola, Coke Ola, Koca-Nola, Kel Kola, Kaw-Kola, Co Kola, Kola Nola, Caro-Cola and Coca-Kola. By 1926, Coke attorney Harold Hirsch had run more than 7,000 competitors out of business.
The Company began searching for a unique bottle design – one, as Thomas put it, “a person will recognize as a Coca-Cola bottle even when he feels it in the dark. The bottle should be so shaped that, even when broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”
After a succession of rejected designs, the bottlers adopted the now-classic bottle designed by the C.J. Root Company of Terre Haute, Indiana. The alternately taped and bulging shape was brilliant artistry, but astoundingly lousy botany: the bottle designers, thinking they were copying the shape of the coca bean, mistakenly copied the cacao bean, from which chocolate is made.
The bottle was a huge success. the bottlers liked it because its extra-thick glass gave a heft that disguised how little Coca-Cola was actually in it (6.5 ounces). The company liked it because it gave them a potent weapon that would kill all infringers. Or so they thought.
(continued in Part II)