This Day in History: Civil War Veteran and Morphine Addict John Pemberton Invents Coca-Cola

One of the first ever Coca-Cola coupons, distributed in 1888 to help promote the drink.

This Day In History: March 29, 1886

On this day in history, 1886, Dr. John Pemberton mixed the first batch of what would soon become Coca-Cola.

Pemberton was a pharmacist and also a former Confederate soldier who was wounded in the Battle of Columbus.  This subsequently led to him becoming addicted to morphine, as happened to many people at the time.  As such, after the war, he began seeking a cure for morphine addiction.  One of the areas he looked for a cure was experimenting with coca and coca wines.  One such concoction Pemberton came up with was “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”, advertised as a nerve tonic cure-all. Unfortunately for him, this cure-all also included alcohol (from wine), which was banned in Atlanta in 1886.

Not to be dissuaded, Pemberton modified his formula with the help of Willis Venable and Frank Mason Robinson.  This new mixture was very similar to his original French Wine Coca, but without the alcohol (substituting the wine with sugar and adding citric acid to counteract the bitter taste this substitution introduced).  He also mixed this concoction with carbonated water (carbonated water was often used in “cure-all” mixtures as it was believed to itself be very good for your health).

He began selling this new soft drink at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta on May 8, 1886. Much like his old product, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, this new drink was sold as a cure-all, specifically advertised as a cure for impotence, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches, nausea, and morphine addiction, as well as a general stimulant and health booster.

Over the course of the first year an average of just nine servings of this soft drink were sold per day.  From these humble beginnings as a health tonic, Coca Cola has grown into one of the best known brand names and beverages in the world, with sales of around 1.6 billion servings of Coke every day or around half a trillion servings per year.

Bonus Facts:

  • While today the term “soft drink” tends to refer to a carbonated beverage, it classically just meant any drink that didn’t contain a significant amount of alcohol.  Read more about this and how the phrase changed meaning here: Why Carbonated Beverages are Called Soft Drinks
  • In 1985, Coca-Cola got the bright idea to change the formula of their staple product that people had been enjoying for nearly a century.  This may sound idiotic in retrospect, but at the time it wasn’t quite so stupid.  Coke had steadily been losing ground to Pepsi and by the early 1980s taste tests showed that most people tested preferred Pepsi over Coke.  Further, if not for Coke’s exclusive contracts with many restaurants and vending machine vendors, Pepsi would have been drastically outselling Coke, as it was in supermarkets and other locations where people had a choice.  You can read more on this here: Why Coke Tried to Switch to New Coke
  • The name “Coca-Cola” was suggested by Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, stemming from the two key ingredients: extracts from the coca leaf and kola nut. Robinson was also the one to first pen the now classic cursive “Coca-Cola” logo.
  • While there were initially different versions of Coca-Cola being sold (depending on the manufacturer, of which there were three primary businesses Pemberton had sold the formula to), all the versions contained cocaine, with some estimates of up to nine milligrams of cocaine per serving.  However, Asa Candler, who eventually finagled exclusive rights to Coca-Cola, claimed that his formulation included only around 1/10 the original formula amount of cocaine and by 1903 he removed cocaine from Coca-Cola by using “spent” coca leaves leftover from the cocaine extraction process.  This still resulted in Coca-Cola having trace amounts of cocaine though.  They’ve since got around this by using cocaine-free coca leaf extract.  The company that prepares this extract, Stepan Company in Maywood, New Jersey, also legally makes cocaine for medicinal purposes.
  • Pemberton died of cancer on August 16, 1888. His son, Charley, died just six years later of a morphine overdose.
  • The term “soda-pop” was a moniker given to carbonated beverages due to the fact that people thought the bubbles were produced from soda (sodium bicarbonate), as with certain other products that were popular at that time.  A more correct moniker would have been “carbonated-pop”.
  • The “pop” part of the term came about in the early 19th century, with the first documented reference in 1812 in a letter written by English poet Robert Southey; in this letter he also explains the term’s origin: “Called on A. Harrison and found he was at Carlisle, but that we were expected to supper; excused ourselves on the necessity of eating at the inn; supped there upon trout and roast foul, drank some most admirable cyder, and a new manufactory of a nectar, between soda-water and ginger-beer, and called pop, because ‘pop goes the cork’ when it is drawn, and pop you would go off too, if you drank too much of it.”
  • While in the beginning carbonation was added to drinks because it was thought it was beneficial to the human body, today carbonation is added for very different reasons, namely, taste and shelf life.  Carbonating beverages, introducing CO2 into the drink mix under pressure, makes the drink slightly more acidic (carbonic acid), which serves to sharpen the flavor and produces a slight burning sensation.  It also functions as a preservative, which increase the shelf life of the beverage.
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  • So, were the medical claims of it being a cure-all ever proven, even back then?

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Mushyrulez: Coke is actually good as a “cure” for mild nausea, particularly when mixed with saltine crackers, so that’s something. 🙂 I imagine when it had cocaine in it, it also probably made people feel a lot better for a little while and probably provided a little energy boost. So one can see why it would have been thought a decent cure-all.