A History of Coca-Cola

Dr. John Stith Pemberton, Inventor of Coca-Cola

Any history of Coca-Cola must begin with Dr. John Stith Pemberton. Although Pemberton is best known for his invention of the most popular soft drink on Earth, Coca-Cola, he had already had a distinguished career before creating the drink in May of 1886.

Permberton graduated from medical school at the tender age of 19 in 1850. He also received a graduate degree in pharmacy at an early age. He worked for many years as a druggist in Columbus before moving with his family to Atlanta in 1870.

In Atlanta he served on the first pharmacy licensing board in Georgia. He also created a chemical laboratory which was the first state-run facility to test soil and crop chemicals as well as served as a trustee for the Emory University School of Medicine. During the Civil War he served in the Confederate Army, achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel.

It was an aging Pemberton who created Coca-Cola in his laboratory in May of 1886. He already had a product serving as a nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy he had put on the market and was sold by most of the druggists in Atlanta: Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. The drink was inspired by the popular French concoction, Vin Mariana.

In 1886, however, alcohol became illegal in Atlanta and Pemberton was forced to remove the wine from his recipe. Reworking the formula, he kept the coca but sweetened the drink with sugar instead of wine. His friend and bookkeeper Frank Robinson suggested that he name the product Coca-Cola based on two of its ingredients. Coca leaves as well as the caffeine rich Kola nut.

The first store to sell Coca-Cola was Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta. Unlike today Coca-Cola was not originally sold in bottles but was purely a fountain drink. In that first year of production Pemberton made only $50, yet he had spent over $70 in production and marketing.

It was at Jacob’s Pharmacy that another important Coca-Cola milestone was made. In those days Coca-Cola was sold as syrup, the customer would add the water himself. However one day a customer asked that the man behind the counter add the water for him. The tap was at the opposite end of the counter and the clerk asked the customer if he could add soda water instead of still water. The customer agreed, drank the drink and determined it tasted better than normal. Carbonated Coca-Cola had been born.

Pemberton pressed on and the business became more profitable. However his health was failing and Pemberton was not that interested in Coca-Cola to begin with. When the brief prohibition ended in Atlanta in 1887 he once again returned to his French Wine Coca, although he kept the Coca-Cola Corporation in production.

Pemberton died in 1888, only two years after his invention had been created. He had passed on the business to fellow pharmacist Asa Griggs Candler, a northerner who had come to Atlanta during Reconstruction. Also joining Candler in the business was Pemberton’s friend Frank Robinson, who had come up with the name for Coca-Cola and also wrote the signature script of the Coca-Cola logo.

Candler’s Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola scholars debate over whether or not Candler received control of Coca-Cola through purely legitimate means. In the early years there were at least three different people proclaiming control over the formula and production, including Pemberton’s son Charles Pemberton. By 1891 Candler had prevailed, however, claiming the title of Coca-Cola king for himself. In 1892 he created The Coca-Cola Company, replacing the Coca-Cola Corporation created by Pemberton that had been lost in the business and legal battles of the three years following Pemberton’s death. The next year in 1893 Candler trademarked the name Coca-Cola.

Candler and Robinson proved to be geniuses at marketing. One of their most important moves was to paint Coca-Cola advertising across walls and barns across the south. By 1908 over 2.5 million square feet of walls had been covered with the words Coca-Cola.

Both men were opposed to the bottling of their product. The first actual bottling of Coca-Cola occurred at the Biedenharn Candy Company in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1894. The 6 ounce Hutchinson bottles were made by Joseph A. Biedenharn himself, feeling that Coca-Cola was a drink you should be able to take with you. He asked Candler to bottle Coca-Cola but he originally rejected idea. Coca-Cola did not officially begin bottling its project until 1899. Then, as today, the majority of bottling was done by independent companies in the areas where the product was actually sold.

Although soda bottles had been born with Coca-Cola thanks to Joseph A. Biedenharn, by 1914 Coca-Cola had developed so many competitors that Candler and Robinson felt important that they distinguish their bottle design. That way Coca-Cola would be able to stand out from the crowd of imitators. It was in 1916 that the new contour bottle that is recognized the world over was released. It is one of the few packaging designs in the world that is protected with trademark status.

1914 also marked the year that Candler had made $50 million off of Coca-Cola, the product that John Stith Pemberton had lost money on in its first year of production. Coca-Cola, originally made with coca leaves (which contained trace amounts of cocaine) were removed from the formula the year before in 1913 over concern of the cocaine in the drink. The company began using spent coca leaves which retained the flavor but no longer contained cocaine.

In 1925, after running the Coca-Cola Company for over 30 years, Asa Griggs Candler died. His family sold The Coca-Cola Company for the price of $25 million.

Coca-Cola and World War II

By World War II Coca-Cola was already an extremely popular drink in the United States. General Dwight David Eisenhower, future President of the United States, requested that The Coca-Cola Company set up ten bottling plants to provide Coca-Cola for soldiers in the war. By the end of the war Coca-Cola had 64 plants in operation solely for providing free drinks to soldiers.

One important issue here was one of sugar. Sugar was rationed during World War II, however sugar was vital to the creation of Coca-Cola. Because Coca-Cola was providing free drinks for GIs overseas a deal was struck between Coca-Cola and the United States government that The Coca-Cola Company would be exempt from sugar rationing. Rivals such as Pepsi were still subject to the sugar rationing, and this gave Coca-Cola great advantage during the war years. Soldiers returning from battle had also gotten used to drinking Coke and brought their love of the drink back home with them.

It was at this time that the nickname Coke for Coca-Cola began to really catch on, perhaps in part due to the influence of the soldiers drinking it overseas. Although its use had earlier been discouraged by The Coca-Cola Company, it registered Coke as a trademark in 1945. The war would truly serve as a landmark in the history of Coca-Cola.

Diet Coke and New Coke

The 1980’s proved a very important decade for The Coca-Cola Company. In 1982 they introduced the world to Diet Coke, a calorie-free version of their incredibly popular soft drink. It was hailed by many in the business world as the most successful product launch of the 1980’s.

On the other end of the scale was Coca-Cola’s relaunch into New Coke. Although it has never been officially revealed what the impetus behind the relaunch was, many suspect it was because its closest rival, Pepsi, continually beat out Coca-Cola in taste tests. They decided to create a new, sweeter formula that was more like Pepsi.

New Coke was released in 1985 and immediately flopped. Although it did well in taste tests consumers revolted against the relaunch, recalling fondly the old Coca-Cola. Within a few months The Coca-Cola Company decided to reissue the original Coca-Cola, renamed (as it is still called today) Coca-Cola Classic. Consumers returned to the drink, and New Coke fizzled out quickly (although it was still sold in some Midwestern states as late as 1998).

Coca-Cola has only continued to grow in the decades since the New Coke fiasco. Its popularity has increased worldwide, and it is by far the world’s most recognized and popular soft drink. In its over 200 years of history it has become the true king of soft drinks.

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