History of Coca Cola

The history of Coca Cola began in Atlanta, Georgia on May 8, 1886. It was invented by Dr. John Stith Pemberton at his Pemberton Chemical Company. Pemberton had been wounded in the Civil War and had subsequently become addicted to morphine. He spent considerable time trying to develop a morphine free pain killer.

His first attempt was known as Dr. Tuggle’s Compound Syrup of Globe Flower. The active ingredient was found in the buttonbush, which is a toxic plant found in Alaska. He then experimented with coca and coca wines. Pemberton made a drink that contained extract from a kola nut among other things. He called this drink Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.

Unfortunately this beverage contained alcohol. In 1886 Atlanta and Fulton County passed some temperance legislation that was common at the time. That meant that alcohol was no longer allowed. Pemberton had to find an alternative to his French wine coca. 

Invented Through Trial and Error

He mixed many different syrups using trial and error. Slowly drifting into his final product. He cleaned out a glass with soda water and discovered that it made a pleasant beverage. He then decided to market the drink as a fountain drink.

Pemberton mixed the syrup and took it to Jacobs’ Pharmacy where they sampled the product, said it was “excellent” and placed the drink on sale for 5 cents a glass. His bookkeeper and partner, Frank Robinson, chose the name for the beverage. He was known for his excellent handwriting and wrote Coca Cola in the flowing script we know today. It was originally marketed as a medicine that would cure a number of diseases such as morphine addiction, indigestion, nerve disorders, headaches, and impotence. 

Pemberton Gets Sick

Soon after bringing Coca Cola to market, John Pemberton became very sick. He had incorporated Coca Cola and started a company around it. Pemberton had one son, Charles Pemberton. He felt that Coca Cola was going to be a major success and wanted to make sure that a portion of the company was left to Charles. Charles wasn’t interested in owning a portion of the company and instead insisted on selling out to have the money instead. He was struggling greatly with finances, and in an act of desperation, he started selling off the rights to his formula and his business. This is where Asa Griggs Candler came into the Coca Cola picture.

Asa Griggs Candler Contributes to the History of Coca Cola

Asa Candler was a smart businessman and pharmacist in the Atlanta area. He loved the Coca Cola drink and began buying shares from Pemberton. 

Charles continued to be involved with the Coca Cola company. He held exclusive control over the Coca Cola name. He sold a crude version of Coca Cola under the Coca Cola name. This was a major hurdle for Asa Candler. At this point Candler owned a 1/3 stake in Coca Cola. He had the rights to the official recipe, but he didn’t have the rights to the name. As a result he had to sell the beverage under alternate names like Yum Yum and Koke.

Shortly after he sold off the company, John Pemberton died of stomach cancer in August 1888. He was 57.   Charles was still in charge of the rights to the Coca Cola name. 

After Pemberton died, Asa Candler acted quickly to gain complete control of Coca Cola, including the rights to the name. He knew the recipe was solid, but selling that under Yum Yum and Koke wasn’t taking off. It certainly wasn’t making him the kind of money that he felt he should be taking in. 

Candler Takes Complete Control of Coca Cola

One story states that Candler approached Pemberton’s widow on the day of his funeral and offered her $300 cash for the title to the name. Asa Candler was finally in full control and incorporated a second company called, The Coca Cola Company. 

When all was said and done his total investment in taking over Coca Cola was $2,300. In today’s dollars that wold be roughly $64,000. Not bad for a company that is worth $83.8 billion today.

Charles Pemberton was an alcoholic and an opium addict. He was found unconscious in 1894 with a stick of opium by his side. He died 10 days later at the age of 40.

With complete control of the company, Candler was able to successfully market and grow Coca Cola’s footprint. He was responsible for getting Coca Cola trademarked officially. By 1895 Coca Cola had a national distribution. In 1899 they began exporting to Cuba. Two years later exports to Europe began.

Coca Cola and Cocaine

Let’s talk about cocaine and Coca Cola for a second. Coca Cola was originally brewed from coca leaves. These contained small amounts of cocaine. The original Coca Cola beverage actually contained cocaine. However, it was a byproduct of using coca leaves. Originally each glass contained around 9 milligrams of cocaine. In 1903 Candler decided to remove the cocaine from the coca leaves before adding them to the drink. He then sold the extracted cocaine to pharmaceutical companies. 

Changes at The Coca Cola Company

The early 1900s were a period of growth and change within the Coca Cola company. As I mentioned, in 1903 cocaine was removed from the formula. In 1911, the advertising budget for Coca Cola reached the dizzying sum of 1 million dollars. In today’s dollars that is around 12 million. Coca Cola’s advertising budget for 2018 was 5.8 billion dollars. 

Candler Exits and Woodruff Takes Over

In 1915 the iconic Coca Cola glass bottle was developed and used. In 1916 Candler ran for mayor and won. As a result of winning that election, he began to reduce his involvement in the day to day operations at Coca Cola. In 1917 the company reduced the amount of caffeine in the beverage by 50%. In 1919 Candler gave most of his stock to his kids. They turned around and sold their shares to Ernest Woodruff. Woodruff’s sons, Robert and George, were heavily involved with leading and influencing Coca Cola until 1985. George was a director at Coca Cola and his brother Robert was the president of Coca Cola until 1954. He then continued on their board of directors until 1984 

So that is a lot of names and a lot of dates thrown around. From Pemberton, to Candler, to Woodruff and finally his sons, Robert and George. That covers a significant amount of the history of Coca Cola. So what else changed during that time?

Fixed Price of Coca Cola, The 5 Cent Coke

The history of Coca Cola took an interesting turn in 1899, Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead approached Asa Candler about a contract to bottle Coca Cola. They were two lawyers from Chattanooga, TN. Candler signed the contract for $1, which he never collected. This also put Coca Cola in a precarious position. The bottling contract had no expiration date. 

Candler had essentially agreed to sell Coca Cola at the same price forever. Many speculate that he did this because he honestly thought that bottling would never take off. He had faith in the soda fountain. However, in 1928 bottled Coca Cola sales surpassed the soda fountain sales. 

During this time the price of a 6.5 ounce glass of Coca Cola was 5 cents. Bottling companies wanted to raise prices which really bothered Coca Cola. The bottling companies could charge whatever they wanted for the finished bottle of Coke, but Coca Cola had to sell their syrup to the bottling companies at a fixed price. 

Marketing and Vending Machines Making Money on the 5 Cent Coke

Because of their agreement, Coca Cola could only increase their profits if they sold more syrup. In an effort to force bottling companies to buy more syrup, Coca Cola started a brilliant advertising campaign. Every ad for Coca Cola had the 5 cent price tag in the advertisement. By controlling the advertising, and the price of the finished product through the advertising, Coca Cola was able to keep the price of coke at 5 cents from 1886-1959.

Another reason for pushing to keep the cost of a Coke at 5 cents was the vending machines used at the time. Vending machines couldn’t give reliable change. Coca Cola was afraid consumers wouldn’t purchase a Coke if it required multiple coins. They were also hesitant to double the price of Coke to 10 cents. So they kept it at 5 cents. 

The 7.5 Cent Coin

Coca Cola tried many times to get creative and find ways to increase their prices on the vending machines. They owned the machines throughout the country and wanted to increase those profits. The Coca Cola Company even went so far as to petition the US Treasury in 1953 to produce a 7.5 cent coin. The treasury refused to fulfill that request. Through the 1950a Coke raised the prices to 6, 7 and sometimes 10 cents. The 5 cent coke was officially dead by 1959.

Marketing and Advertising

The history of Coca Cola has been synonymous with advertising.. One of Ernest Woodruff’s goals when he took over Coca Cola in 1919 was to ensure that everyone on earth had coke as their preferred beverage of choice. 

One of the legends and myths surrounding Coca Cola is that they introduced us to the modern Santa Clause. They began advertising in the 1930s with an old man dressed in red. However, White Rock Beverages used a similar image in their ginger ale advertising as early as 1923. So it was a common and recognized image long before Coke started using it. 

The 80s brought us the famous cola wars when Pepsi launched an add where people participated in blind taste tests. They claimed that in blind taste tests, people preferred Pepsi over Coca Cola. Coca Cola then ran a series of ads that compared the Pepsi challenge to two chimpanzees trying to decide which tennis ball was fuzzier. Just like that, Coke was back on top.

How Coke Changed Through The Years

Coca Cola had a long standing policy in place to not use its name on anything other than its flagship product. In the 60s when diet colas started taking off, The Coca Cola Company stuck to that decision and released a diet cola under the Tab brand in 1963. In 1982 they launched Diet Coke. Instead of being a modified version of the original recipe, Diet Coke was based off the Tab formula. 

Other flavors followed through the years. Some of them were regional and country specific. Diet Coke has had the most experiments lately with flavorings. Blood Orange, Mango, Lime-Ginger, Blueberry-Acai, Strawberry-Guava, Orange-Vanilla, Raspberry, Peach, Vanilla, Cherry and more have all made an appearance on a Coke can through the years. 

For me the variety in flavors has been particularly problematic. I’m a sucker for new flavors and varieties of a product. I have tried any new flavor that has been released in the past few years here in the states. I have enjoyed them all. However, my favorite is the standard Coke Zero Sugar. I keep coming back to that again and again.

Where They Are Today

Coca Cola continues to be a beverage juggernaut. They own many popular brands you have likely heard of, and some brands you likely haven’t heard of. Sprite, Fanta, Fresca, Barq’s, Schweppes, Dasani, Minute Maid and more fall under the Coca Cola umbrella. What is your beverage and flavor of choice?

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History of Coca Cola: Myths, Legends and Truth

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