What You Probably Don't Know About the Beginnings of Coca Cola
First Coca Cola Santa
It all started with a war wound:
In April 1865 while serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army's 12th Cavalry Regiment, John Pemberton, known as "Doc", was wounded in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia. He, like so many other casualties of the war, became addicted to the morphine he was given. After the war, he used his training as a pharmacist to search for a cure for his addiction. Pemberton experimented with coca and coca wines, eventually creating his own version containing kola nut and damiana. In 1866 he developed a painkiller that would serve as an opium-free alternative to morphine.
In 1886, when Atlanta enacted temperance legislation, Pemberton was forced to produce a non-alcoholic alternative. With the bars closed, the soda fountain was rising in popularity as a social gathering spot, and they were often located in drug stores. Atlanta druggist Willis Venable helped Pemberton test the recipe for the beverage. He ended up blending the base syrup with carbonated water by accident. The first "coke" was sold to the public at the soda fountain in Jacob's Pharmacy in Atlanta on May 8, 1886. About nine servings were sold each day.
Like so many businesses in their first year, Coke did not show a profit. Sales for that first year added up to a total of about $50. It had cost Pemberton more than $70 in expenses to create the product. With obviously no great head for business, Pemberton relied upon his bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, who registered Coca-Cola's formula with the patent office. He designed the logo and slogan, "The Pause That Refreshes." Robinson also scripted in longhand "Coca Cola" with the flowing letters that are recognizable the world over today.
Coke Ad 1971
Change of Fortune
Soon after Coca-Cola hit the market, Pemberton fell ill and nearly went bankrupt. In desperation, partially due to his continuing addiction to morphine, he began selling rights to his formula to his business partners in Atlanta. Pemberton was convinced his formula "some day will be a national drink." His plan was to retain a share of the ownership as an inheritance for his son. But his son had an opium addiction of his own to finance and wanted the money. So in 1887 Pemberton sold the last of his rights to Coca Cola to Atlanta pharmacist/businessman Asa G. Candler for $2,300.
Two years after its debut, the inventor of Coca Cola was dead, never knowing how successful his product would eventually become. John Pemberton is buried in the Linwood Cemetery in his hometown of Columbus, Georgia. Six years later Charles Pemberton also died from his drug use after attempting to sell an imitation of his father's soft drink.
To this day, anyone from Columbus will readily tell you that their town is where Coca Cola was invented. The Columbus State University even boasts The Coca-Cola Space Science Center.
Coke comes to Atlanta
By 1891 Chandler was the sole owner of Coca Cola, and he did have a head for business. He implemented one of the most innovative marketing techniques ever. He hired traveling salesmen to pass out coupons for a free Coke. Along with the coupons, Candler plastered the Coca Cola logo on calendars, posters, notebooks, and bookmarks to reach customers as a national brand. He also patented the syrup as a medicine for fatigue and headaches. But Congress put a stop to that practice in 1898, passing a tax on all medicines in the wake of the Spanish-American war. Candler, always keeping an eye on the bottom line, decided Coca-Cola would be sold only as a beverage, but without changing its ingredients. After a 1905 court battle, though, you could no longer buy a Coke to cure your headache, because the extracts of cocaine and the caffeine-rich kola nut were removed from the formula.
By the turn of the century, Coca Cola was one the most popular fountain drinks in the U.S. and Canada. Its syrup sales increased by more than 4000 percent in ten years. In 1899 Candler franchised a bottling system for the drink and sold it for one dollar. Sound foolish? Not at all. The bottlers absorbed all the start-up costs and continuing overhead, but still bought their syrup from Candler.
In 1915, Coke began to be sold in the contoured bottle. The original reason? You could find it in the refrigerator, without looking, by the iconic shape. Copycat drinks soon replicated the shape.
In 1919, Candler sold the company to a group of investors for $25 million ($356 million in 2015 dollars). They were led by Columbus, Georgia, native Ernest Woodruff and his good friend, Columbus businessman W.C. Bradley. Coca-Cola finally came back to its hometown.
"The brand would not be what it is today without the creator who came from Columbus and the leaders from here who drove its commercial success. And Columbus would not be what it is today without the Coke money that came back home," said Tom Chitwood, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer March 28, 2011
By 1930 "Coke" was being distributed in 20 countries. Coca Cola, Inc. became one of the earliest sponsors of the Olympics. It introduced the six-bottle carton and the automatic fountain dispenser. Those marketing geniuses also created an advertising image of Santa Claus that became the state of the art for the beloved character worldwide.
One more bit of trivia: a single Coke was first sold for a nickel. Today it costs 15 times that. It has proved to be the most popular non-alcoholic drink in the world - at any price.
Coke Ad 1979
'A Rose by Any Other Name'
Another bit of trivia that you may not know is the urban legend that follows. What you call a soft drink says more about where you live in America than almost any other one thing.
In the South (the home of Coca Cola whether you are from Columbus or Atlanta!) any carbonated soft drink is a coke. It doesn't matter if it's a Dr. Pepper or an Orangeade. It's a "coke". The humorist, the late Lewis Grizzard once said God even called any cold drink - other than a cold beer - a coke. "Pop? I'll pop you upside the head if you don't bring that Coca Cola over here right now. Right Now - I'm God!" (Note: a real coke in the South is always referred to as a Coca Cola, not just a coke.)
In the Midwest, the great plains, and the Pacific Northwest it is a pop, like the word Grizzard's God was referring to so emphatically.
If you are standing in California or on the northeastern coast, it's a soda. Unless you are in Vermont. Then it's ordered by the specific brand (i.e. root beer, 7-Up). Even more specifically, in parts of eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, it is a tonic (pronounced taw-nick).
Whatever you call it, there is one thing you probably know without reading it in this hub:
"Coke is Real Good".
References for this hub: World of Coke, Wikipedia, Huffington Post, SodaHead, National Registry of Historic Places, Atlanta Journal/Constitution, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
What do you call one?
Through the Years
Super Bowl 2014
More by this Author
Not well-known facts about the wives of American Presidents.
Summertime is synonamous with sweet tea - at least in the South. Here are the reasons why.
With a contentious 2016 coming to an end, here's hoping we can do better in the new year.