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What You Probably Don't Know About the Beginnings of Coca Cola

Updated on June 10, 2015
Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran is a writer & former newspaper reporter/editor who traveled the world as a soldier's better half. Her works are on Amazon.

First Coca Cola Santa

Haddon Sundblom painted the first Coca Cola Santa in 1931 using his neighbor as the model.
Haddon Sundblom painted the first Coca Cola Santa in 1931 using his neighbor as the model.

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.

Asa G. Candler
Asa G. Candler | Source

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



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    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      15 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Anita: As we say here in Atlanta, "Coke is REAL good." It's no doubt why we call all soft drinks "a coke". A real coke is a "Coca-Cola". Thanks for the comments.

    • Anita Hasch profile image

      Anita Hasch 

      15 months ago from Port Elizabeth

      This is info I have never heard before. Imagine Coke being invented in 1865. I always thought there must be some ingredient in it to make people buy it all the time. It may not be good for you but it sure tastes good on a hot day.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      peachpurple : Me too! Thanks for the comment.

    • peachpurple profile image


      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      I love the olden days coke ads, more truth and touching scene compare to now

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I can't drink it like I used to either. I've even given up sweet tea at my house, which in the South is a sacrelige!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      3 years ago from Ohio, USA

      I love coke but the phosphoric acid and the sugar are not worth the payback.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      I learned a lot doing this hub and I've been to The World of Coke! I used to work right across the street at the American Cancer Society. Thanks for commenting.

    • Hazel Abee profile image

      Hazel Abee 

      3 years ago from Malaysia

      ... I actually never took time to research on Coca Cola because almost all article on talk of the 'bad effects' of the beverage. It has a well preserved 'recipe secret', no beverage can come close to it. Many people have given me beverages in substitute to Cola but no one can come close to the magical taste ...

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      That's OK. There's room for everybody! Glad I haven't scared you off reading my stuff!!!

    • WillStarr profile image


      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Wonderfully written!

      At various times, I've lived in South Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, and California and yes, they all have their own names for a Coke/soda/pop. Today, I prefer using the name brand.

      BTW, I too am a Pepsi drinker. Or maybe an RC.

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      It probably could be. The anatomy of a drink preference. Why not? It's summer. And we have the time!

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Well Kathleen, I didn't grow up in Atlanta, left when I was 9, and my mother never allowed any soft drinks in the house until I was 14. My drink preferences were established on Travis AFB, California (Pepsi was the preferred on base choice) and by generics my mother bought, both of which are sweeter and less carbonated than Coke. You have also never seen me drink Coke in a restaurant because I can't stand fountain drinks of any kind --- too sweet, too flat --- never tastes like the original to me.

      As for my interesting Mt. Dew (caffeine) and tea and coffee (decaf) habits, it's a trade off, a bargain I made with myself when I turned 40. Because of the Tachycardia and slightly elevated BP and family history of heart disease, my doctor recommended that I give up caffeine (I gave up sugar when I was 30 -- other reasons), so I did.

      First I went to decaf coffee, then decaf tea which I drink all the time, and then decaf soft drinks, which I might have twice a week or so. Coffee and tea were no problem, but for some reason, I found caffeine-free carbonated drinks insipid, gross, and a complete waste of time and money, as I have said many times, "Why in the world would I pay for colored water?"

      I have no idea why, but by the time I turned 50, I disliked everything carbonated (they were all too sweet for me) except Mt. Dew and an occasional Dr. Pepper and I didn't like either of them without caffeine. I decided that having already cut out 80% of my caffeine intake was good enough. I usually drink tea when I go out for a meal, so you would never have known. :) Secrets among friends. :) This could almost have been a HUB!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Pepsi? Seriously? And how long have we been friends and I'm only now finding this flaw in your character??!! You live in Atlanta for crying out loud.

      But I have one question. If you drink Mt. Dew for the caffine (and it has it!) why do you drink decaf tea? Good luck with your class and thanks for the comments. (You are forgiven for the Pepsi.)

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Fascinating Hub. All kinds of stuff I didn't know and I live in Metro Atlanta! I was always a Pepsi girl, but about five years ago I lost my taste for any of the darker, caramel colored drinks. Now I am a straight Mt Dew fanatic and it must have caffeine or its worthless. Mostly I am a decaf Tea drinker. Off to RU for my summer course. Good Hub. :)

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Research is my favorite part of writing. I'm finishing my fourth book, and I always think the one I'm finishing is the last one I have in me. But my husband came up with a suggestion for my next book that will require a great deal of research on little-known countries back in the 1930s and 1940s. I can't wait to get started!

      The issue of cocaine in Coke has been an urban legend for as long as I can remember. I had a friend who claimed decafinated Coke gave her a headache. We tried to convince her it was the absence of the caffeine that gave her the headache - not the drink itself!

      Thanks for your comments and good luck with the novel!

    • Vista15 profile image

      Tiana Dreymor 

      3 years ago from Columbus, OH

      Hi, Kathleen....

      I'm not so sure Cocaine was removed from the formula in 1905.... I had heard it was more like the early 60's... I personally was addicted to Coke three times. Of course, this was before we actually knew there was Cocaine in it...but I remember having withdrawl symptoms when I couldn't afford my habit...

      There wasn't much hoopla about it, I'm sure Coca Cola paid dearly to keep it as much under cover as possible... but I never got addicted to it again.

      I also researched Coca Cola for a novel I am writing, that starts with a little girl who is 6 in about 1913... I'd have to go back and look at my notes...still unfinished, but I had her drinking a Coke and needed to authenticate it... then I have her buying into the company after they go public in 1919... Of course, Coke wasn't the only thing I researched, because there were the phones becoming popular... the 'Motor Car', her brother becomes a dealer of.... LOTS of research went into my still unfinished novel...

    • Kathleen Cochran profile imageAUTHOR

      Kathleen Cochran 

      3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      So, my work here is done. I feel badly though. My inspiration for this hub came from a new hubber who also wrote a short hub on Coca Cola. I got so inspired looking to see what else had - or had not - be written on this history, I got carried away! Hope he forgives me. I can't resist research!

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 

      3 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      In never knew any of this apart from the Cocaine that was originally in Coke.


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