Coca-Cola really did start out containing cocaine. I know there are some people who persist in saying it’s a myth, or that the cocaine was only there by accident. However, Coca-Cola was definitely created as a means of delivering cocaine in a delicious beverage! There was no attempt to hide the cocaine in the early days of the drink. What’s more, in 1993 Mark Pendergrast discovered the original formula for Coca-Cola, which called for 4 ounces of “F.E. Coco,” which meant fluid extract of coca, or coca leaves, from which cocaine is derived.
Regardless, the presence of the drug was no secret, and in that age, it wasn’t rare. Look at the illustration below.
The cocaine was neither an accident nor was it a thinly disguised way for addicts to get the drug. It was not disguised at all. When Coca-Cola was developed by John Stith Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, it was because of the prohibition, which began in Atlanta in 1886. Before then, Pemberton had already been selling another coca product, which was a wine that he called French Wine Coca, made with Peruvian coca leaves.
Before Coca-Cola, most physicians who used cocaine in their practice used coca wine. Therefore, this is the form in which most people consumed cocaine. Pemberton was not the first guy to sell the stuff. Vin Mariani had been sold prior and was still the most popular. Mariani had lots of imitators, some of which may have simply have been cheap wines dosed with cocaine, making them actually more potent than the actual coca wines. Legend has it that Pemberton’s original product was actually red wine with an extract of coca leaves and some cola nut. To think that the precursor to Coca-Cola was actually an adulterated red wine!
Pemberton needed another way of getting the medicinal benefits (as he saw it) to his customers in a palatable drink that didn’t involve alcohol. But he also saw the opportunity to sell a cheaper, drink. He developed a syrup to mix with carbonated water (soda water) which was already being used at drug stores to make soda fountain drinks. Early advertisements openly acknowledged the cocaine content and even made a lot of the then accepted medicinal benefits of the drug.
Pemberton produced the first Coca-Cola syrup, which he didn’t actually have a name for yet, in his home laboratory and carried it down to Jacob’s Pharmacy on May 8, 1886, where it was mixed with soda water from the fountain and served up by the soda-jerk Willis Venable for five cents a glass. This was great idea, as it made a lot more sense than selling 75 cent to one dollar bottles of medicine to the sick, which hardly anyone could afford. Coca Cola was not sold for a nickel for only a short time. If you were alive prior to 1960, you may remember the nickel Coke. Hard to believe, but it’s true. Cokes still cost a nickel until 1960.
It is not clear that Pemberton ever actually coined the name Coca-Cola. Credit is sometimes given to bookkeeper Frank M. Robinson.
The National Druggist ran an advertisement for Coca Cola in 1896 which was made all over with cocaine, but it said that; of course, something being so good for you had to taste bad, but thank God for Coca Cola, because now we can have our cocaine and enjoy it too:
It seems to be a law of nature that the more valuable and efficacious a drug is, the nastier and more unpleasant its taste. It is therefore quite a triumph over nature that the Coca-Cola Co. of Atlanta, Ga., have achieved in their success i robbing both coca leaves and the kola nut of the exceeding nauseous and disagreeable taste while retaining their wonderful medicinal properties, and the power of restoring vitality and raising the spirits of the weary and debilitated. Not only have they done this, but by some subtle alchemy they have made them the basis of one of the most delightful, cheerful, and invigorating of fountain drinks.
Later advertisements, into the 20th century, continued to mention the coca leaf, but did not make such lofty medicinal claims, choosing instead to mention it’s invigorating and relatively harmless effects, “no more harmful than a cup of coffee or tea.”
Many early soft drinks were sold as health tonics and many made claims of being cure-alls. This was not exclusive to coca-cola. However, Coca Cola became so successful after being bought by Asa G. Candler in 1891 that many imitators followed, mostly in Atlanta but some in neighboring areas.
This kind of thing seems shocking, I know. But you have to understand that prior to the 20th century there were hardly any consumer protection laws in the United States. Both cocaine and morphine were available without a prescription and scores of “patent medicines” which contain many ingredients that would make you snort your Coca Cola right out your nose if you read about them, cocaine being one of the popular hidden ingredients of the time. There is no doubt that if you consumed one of these miracle healing tonics containing cocaine, you’d get quite a lift and so could not be blamed for thinking it was one hell of a medicine.
Nowadays it’s odd to see someone smoking a cigarette, let alone imagining them freely drinking some cocaine containing beverage. Well, imagine, if you will, the Cocarette, a cigarette made with cocaine and tobacco leaves, sold by the Cocabacco company of St. Louis. The advertising urged smokers to use cocorettes by claiming that coca is “the finest nerve tonic and exhilarator ever discovered. It stimulates the brain to great activity and gives tone and vigor to the entire system.” The ads weren’t exactly lying. I’ll just bet they did make you scurry through your brain like roaches startled by a light. The company also claimed that coca reversed the depressing affects of nicotine. That’s a good side benefit. They also were “non-injurious” and could be “freely used by persons in delicate health without injury, and with positively beneficial results.”
Hopefully, you now have an idea of how things were. Cocaine addiction was common in the U.S between 1894 and 1899, and again between 1921 and 1929, mostly owed to these products. Europe also saw it’s own wave of addictions. It is ironic that the history of cocaine use in the United States is so tied up with prohibition! After all, Coca Cola was a “temperance drink.”
The Many Early Coca-Cola Immitators
With the success of Coca-Cola came a score of soft drink makers jumping on the coca leaf bandwagon. There were at least three more out of Atlanta. And others Athens, Georgia; Birmingham, Alabama; New Orleans, Cincinnati; Canton and Chicago. Too bad Pemberton had already used the best name. These others had to be content with names like:
Believe it or not, there was even one called Koke! Have a Koke and a smile! As well as such blatant rip-offs as Coke Ola and Coca-Kola. Just imagine that. A full 153 cases of trademark infringement against Coca-Cola were squashed in court in 1916. Estimates of the number of trademark immitators go as high as 7,000! One case, against the Koke Company of America, went all the way to the Supreme Court. There was another called Afri-Kola. Easy to guess the reason for that name. In the image of the Afri-Kola label below, notice it has a diamond shape. This was an imitation of the diamond shaped Coca-Cola label, which was appearing on bottled Coca-Cola products at that time.
This was not the same drink that sells today out of Germany, called Afri-Cola, with a C. I will not get into the undertones of racism that coincided with cocaine use in the South. After all, this is a lighthearted little site. But it seems clear that part of the reason we have drug control today has to do with the racist fear of Southern blacks crazed by cocaine use. If you’d like to read more about this, I’d recommend the book by Mark Pendergrast, For For God, Country and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. One thing that Pendergrast mentions, which will blow your socks off, is that cocaine was a cheaper high than alcohol and 50 cents could buy a week’s supply.
Most of these Coca-Cola imitators didn’t make any specific therapeutic claims. They were simply refreshing, invigorating, healthful, exhilarating, and, of course, delicious. This all became a big problem. Cocaine could crop up anywhere. In a cola or in a patent tonic medicine. There was no need to list it on any ingredient label. It could be hidden. It was cocaine, then, that prompted the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. However, it was not illegal yet! The use of cocaine in products was still permitted but it had to be identified on the label of the product. Still, this was enough to prompt many manufacturers to remove the cocaine from their products. Eventually, in 1914, cocaine became classified as a “narcotic” by the Harrison Narcotics Act.
Once the you know what hit the fan and the harmful and addictive affects of cocaine were in the national agenda, Candler, the owner of Coca-Cola, was in a pickle. Even before that the product had been attacked by a local minister but he had righteously denied it had any harmful affects. He did not want to mess with the formula. The cola was pretty much a craze by this time and if cocaine were taken out, where would that kick come from? And it was half the name, after all, and part of the patent.
The company had a number of legal battles over the years but of significance was the government’s trying to impose a stamp tax on Coca-Cola as a medicine, in 1898. The company sued to get the taxes back in 1901. During the IRS trial, Candler had to admit that the product “contained a small amount of” cocaine. The company did get it’s tax money back but this, and growing tensions surrounding the product prompted Candler to “de-cocainize” the product. The idea was to deliver some coca leaf to the product without it actually containing cocaine, which was partially accomplished in 1902, but some cocaine was still found by a chemist, about four-hundredths of a grain. Then Candler contracted with Schaeffer Alkaloidal Works to “de-cocainize” the Secret Formula’s “Merchandise No. 5.”
Ironically, this change brought about another lawsuit in 1909 by the US Department of Agriculture, which charged that Coca-Cola was “misbranded” since its name promised coca and kola and it had little of either of these things. Furthermore, it was adulterated with caffeine. See, back then, it had a lot more caffeine since a lot of caffeine was needed to get the kick that the original cocaine had given. The company agreed to remove almost two-thirds of the caffeine.
Forget the Cocaine, Match the Bottle!
When Coca-Cola was first at the soda fountain in 1886, like I mentioned above, it was 5 cents a glass. It wasn’t until about eight years later that it began to be bottled on a small scale. But that iconic Coke bottle with its diamond shaped label that so many of us remember so fondly from our youth didn’t come about until 21 years later. Before that the bottles were plain and undistinguished.
Well, coming up with a unique and innovative bottle wasn’t just a way to be fancy. Those early plain and straight-sided bottles were easy for competitors to copy. Coca-Cola imitators could try to imitate the bottle and the diamond label and fool consumers into purchasing their product, or just imitate the name, such as Coca-Colla. There were hundreds of these, including:
And in those days, there was no standard bottle at all. In fact, the product could be put in any bottles and there is a dizzying array of early coca-cola bottles still to be found with collectors and antique dealers. The diamond shaped label was an early way to discourage imitation, since Candler’s name in capital letters had to be printed along one side. Different bottlers could use slightly different bottles. So it was the label that really needed to be imitated. If they got it close enough, a loyal Coca-Cola drinker might accidentally pick up an imitation Coke. After all, in those days, you usually reached down into a cooler full of sodas. Likewise, if you were new to sodas and you grabbed some Coke imitator you may never know the difference and go on drinking the wrong brand! There were many legal battles over this unfair competition but the solution, in the end, was to design and patent a standard Coca-Cola bottle, making it illegal for competitors to imitate it. Even so, the company sometimes went a bit far in their anti-competition battles, going after companies using “cola” in their name, including, of course Pepsi Cola, but this was not considered derivative enough and the case was lost. Other cases, however, like that against the brand “Koke” were won. That was a battle that dragged on for years until the US Supreme Court decided that Koke was a fraud and could no longer be sold.
The reason I mention all this is that many people think that Coca Cola owed all it’s success to being highly addictive, whether from the cocaine content or the later caffeine content. However, Coke’s success went right on happening, and imitators kept coming, all through the changes made early on in the formula, which included removing the cocaine and then highly reducing the caffeine content. But surely the stimulatory effects could not have hurt. Coca Cola didn’t invent the idea of putting a drug in a soda, though!
What about other Drugs in Sodas?
Early soda fountains were nothing more than a way to deliver “medicinal” chemicals to customers in a palatable (and refreshing) form. Early sodas tended to taste more medicinal but this was owed to the fact that distilled herbs or root extracts in alcohol were preferred and these procedures tended to produce a medicinal taste. Fruit syrups that could be stored were harder to produce as when fruits were “extracted” a jelly-like substance tended to form. Fruit syrups would require a fresh syrup to be made every day. Over time, this too changed as new manufacturing methods were adopted and a much wider array of flavors became available. The taste of the sodas became the main focus. Yet some other familiar sodas of today contained weird stuff as well. You think cocaine is shocking? How about lithium in your soda?
What exists today a 7up started out as Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. The advertising slogan? Take the ‘ouch’ out of grouch! It still contained lithium up until 1950. It just so happens that a daily dose of 7up, back in the day, may have slowed the progression of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Go figure. It was obviously marketed as a mixer for the questionable hootches that were sold during prohibition, and no doubt the lithium was not only supposed to prevent or cure hangovers, but give the drinker the perception of protection from what could very well be poison.
Carbonated “Soda” Water
It was all thanks to soda water, which was itself considered a health drink during the 1820’s and 30’s, as they were supposed to mimic the healthful natural mineral waters from springs. Carbonic acid gas had been discovered as early as 1520 but it was not until 1867 that Joseph Priestly of Birmingham, England, managed to make the first drinkable carbonated water. Bottled carbonated water began being sold by Jacob Schweppe of Switzerland, a company that still markets soda waters, Ginger Ale, and others today. Ginger and lemon were among the first flavorings to be added to the soda water, and Lemon’s Superior Sparkling Ginger Ale was the first soft drink to be trademarked in the United States, in 1871.
Ginger Ale was the most popular marketed drink for many years, even prior to Coca Cola and other soft drinks. Vernors Ginger Ale lays claim to being the oldest soft drink in the United States, having been invented in 1865, but this claim seems fairly sketchy and although Vernors is probably a bit older than Coca-Cola or Dr. Pepper, it’s near impossible to say what soft drink is truly the oldest. Some sources claim that soft drinks were invented much, much earlier, in the 1600’s such as the lemonade drinks sold by Compagnie de Limonadiers of Paris in 1676. These non-carbonated lemon drinks could only be called ‘soft-drinks’ however, if they were marketed as an alternative to hard liquors, which is what the term “soft” means in soft drink.
Ginger was one of the first roots used to flavor soda water, long before the cola root, or, for the bold, gentian, like in Moxie, all of which were meant to make this health tonic taste better. Soon, however, the soda fountains became a social destination and the soda’s themselves found their way into bottles. Close on the heels of Coca-Cola’s success was Dr. Pepper, which had actually been sold a full year earlier than Coke; and Hires Root Beer, among others. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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