As an American success, Coca-Cola has taken an evolutionary ride
Last Wednesday, March 12, marked an important anniversary for a great American company; one might almost say for an American institution. The anniversary was of an event that happened more than 120 years ago, but the company's best known product was born eight years earlier.
John Pemberton was a soldier in the Civil War, a Lt Colonel in the Confederate cavalry, and he received a wound that caused him to take morphine in the years after the conflict. John owned Pemberton's Eagle Drug and Chemical House in Columbus, Ga. and, not wanting to become addicted, he began to experiment to find a substitute for the drug.
One of his early efforts was called Coca Wine and was patented in 1885 as French Wine Coca nerve tonic. The next year Atlanta passed a prohibition act and Pemberton had to revise his recipe to take the alcohol out. This new version he called Coca Cola and he first tried it by taking a jug full of the syrup to his local drug store, Jacob's Pharmacy. Here it was mixed with carbonated water and sold as a soda fountain drink for five cents a glass.
Doctor Pemberton had a bookkeeper, Frank M. Robinson, who thought the name Coca Cola would look good in adverts. It was Robinson who wrote the name in the script that is still used today. The ad appeared in the Atlanta Journal but the first year, the new drink only averaged around nine sales per day, even though Pemberton claimed it cured many things from morphine addiction to impotence.
Unfortunately for him Pemberton did not realize what he had invented. He began selling shares in his business to local businessmen including, just before his death in 1888, to one whose name was Asa G. Candler.
Candler was a very astute man. He immediately set about buying up the shares in the company that were owned by other people. He was successful but for a short time was forced to sell the new drink under the names "Yum-Yum" and "Koke" because the name Coca Cola belonged to Charlie Pemberton, John's son. By May 1, 1889, however Candler was the sole owner of the Coca Cola brand for which he had paid a total of $2,300.
At this time the drink was still sold as a syrup to which carbonated water was added for sale in soda fountains but, in 1891, comes the anniversary I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. On March 12 in that year the owners of Biedenharn Candy Company of Vicksburg, Miss., began selling the drink in their own brand of bottles. Eight years later Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead persuaded Candler to sign a contract with them to bottle the beverage in Chattanooga, Tenn. The agreed fee was one dollar, which Candler supposedly never collected.
These early bottles were not the familiar Coke bottle shape of course, that came along in 1915. In that year the company announced a competition for a design for a bottle "that a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark." The winner was created by Earl R. Dean, who was a bottle designer. Dean worked for the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Ind., as supervisor of the bottle molding room. Dean's boss thought the design should be based on the coca leaf but the designer was unable to find a picture of it. He did see pictures of the cocoa pod, however, and suggested he based the design on that.
Within twenty-four hours the first prototype bottles were made and the design was patented in November, 1915. The bottle underwent one or two small changes but the next year was chosen as the winner of the competition. Within months it was on sale and by 1920 it was accepted as the standard bottle for the Coca Cola company who called it the "contour bottle". As a reward, Earl Dean was awarded a life time job with Roots Glass Company.
Bottled Coke caught on. Soon it was sold all over the country and in 1944 the company produced its one billionth gallon of the syrup from which the drink is made. There have been many milestones since then of course. In 1955 cans of Coke appeared for the first time and it is now produced in several countries. Despite this the recipe has always remained a closely guarded secret with only two executives of the company knowing it. The recipe itself is kept in a vault at the World of Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta.
Coca-Cola has come a long way since John Pemberton took a jug of syrup to Jacob's Pharmacy for them to try. As of 2012 it was officially available in every country in the world except Cuba and North Korea and I suspect, if you have the right contacts, you could probably get it there too. Its story is a great tale of American success, long may it remain so.
Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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