Giant Coca-cola billboard in San Francisco

War, morphine and cocaine: The birth of Coca-Cola

There are few more recognisable companies in the world today than Coca-Cola. They produce just over 3 per cent of all beverages consumed around the world and the power of the brand is obvious wherever you go. While many of us have grown up with The Coca-Cola Company at the forefront of food and drink, there was a time when Coke was nothing more than a small-town oddity. The tale of Coca-Cola’s creation is perhaps one of the most chaotic, surprising and shocking of any major brand still in business today.

Santa holding a coca-cola bottle looking at a child Credit: Flickr/Giorgio

The story begins during the American Civil War. The bloodiest domestic military conflict in American history, the war left huge numbers of casualties on both sides. Serious injuries afflicted a significant proportion of the population, and many thousands were left in crippling pain thanks to wounds sustained in battle. The use of morphine as pain relief exploded amongst ex troops. Approximately 400,000 became addicted. “The soldiers’ sickness”, as addiction came to be known, ran rampant across the country.

One user was the Confederate lieutenant-colonel, John Pemberton. After being stabbed through the chest by a sabre at the Battle of Columbus, Pemberton began regularly self-medicating with morphine to ease his pain, quickly becoming addicted. Pemberton was, by trade, a brilliant pharmaceutical chemist. After the war, he turned his attention to finding a cure to the debilitating sickness affecting soldiers throughout the United States.

John Pemberton statue in Georgia Credit: Pixabay

After experimenting with a variety of different chemical compositions, Pemberton stumbled across what he believed to be a cure. Using extract from the damiana plant and the kola nut, he combined a mix ingredients to create a tonic that he christened “Pemberton’s French Coca Wine”. As the name hints, the key ingredient was cocaine.

During the late 19th Century, cocaine was a popular additive in many alcoholic drinks, and Pemberton was certainly not alone in advocating the substance for medicinal purposes. Claims about the effects were inflated, to say the least. “Pemberton’s French Coca Wine” was advertised as being an effective treatment for both morphine addiction, depression, alcoholism, impotence and “nervous prostration” in ladies.

Advert for late 19th Century Coca wine Credit: Wikimedia

Tonics like Pemberton’s were almost universally popular. The drinks, most of which used cocaine as a key ingredient, were effectively marketed to children as well as adults. The introduction of the soda fountain allowed any drink formed from a concentrated syrup to be distributed to all corners of the country. Though originally intended for medicinal purposes, Pemberton quickly adapted his recipe by removing the alcohol (but keeping the cocaine) in order to effectively promote it as a refreshing fountain drink during the peak of the temperance movement.

Coca cola christmas advert with people in the foreground

Unfortunately for Pemberton, and for many thousands across America, cocaine was not and is not an effective remedy for morphine addiction. The famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, himself a passionate cocaine advocate, inadvertently proved this by attempting to treat an associate with regular cocaine injections to help him overcome a dependency. The result was that the patient became addicted to both substances and was dead within seven years. Eventually, Pemberton himself became enslaved to his own cocaine and morphine habits.

Clearly, a drug-addled brain is not beneficial when attempting to launch a business. But Pemberton’s addiction was not the only factor that limited Coca-Cola’s early growth. The market was a saturated one. During the 1880s and 90s, hundreds of similarly branded tonics and drinks were all competing to achieve national recognition. In order to distribute the drink far beyond his home in Atlanta, Pemberton needed to secure some serious investment.

Old Coca-Cola factory wall Credit: Flickr/Thomas

Though he was not short of individuals willing to invest, cocaine and morphine did not help him make well-advised business decisions. Despite receiving the backing of four local Atlanta businessmen, Pemberton continued to offer non-existent shares to other interested parties and granted licences to use the name Coca-Cola, whilst himself retaining possession of the formula. He also gave overall control of the original Coca-Cola Company to his son, Charley. By 1888, no fewer than three businesses were selling the drink, all claiming to be the real thing.

With all the chaos, it seems miraculous that Coca-Cola ever managed to pull itself together and achieve world domination. The man to thank for the business’ metamorphosis is Asa Candler. Candler became involved with Coca-Cola in 1888, when Charley Pemberton still had a majority share in the company. Frustrated by the confusion crippling the business, Candler attempted to sell the product separately under the names “Yum Yum” and “Koke”, with little success. He was, however, convinced of the drink’s commercial viability.

Old Asa Candler portrait photograph Credit: Wikimedia

In 1888, John Pemberton died from stomach cancer at the age of 57. This left Charley solely responsible for The Coca-Cola Company. Himself a morphine addict, he too was not renowned for his business acumen. Within a year, Candler had persuaded Charley and the other investors to sell him their shares for a mere $550. Now with control over the formula and the name, Candler was free to pursue his own business plan. Thanks to his aggressive marketing and sales strategies, The Coca-Cola Company grew to become the behemoth that it is today.

Under Candler, the business would never return to the disarray that had defined its early years. But despite its success, there was still evidence of the drink’s turbulent history. Charley passed away, destitute, in 1894 from a morphine overdose. Two of Candler’s early partners, Margaret Dozier and Woolfolk Walker, alleged fraud against the company for forging their signatures in 1914. By then, however, it was too late. Coca-Cola was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous drink.

Bottles of coca-cola in a crate Credit: Pixabay

Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, Coca-Cola do little to draw attention to their drug-shaped past. The company’s website has no mention of Pemberton’s predilection for morphine, or the drink’s original cocaine based formula. Pemberton himself, however, is still revered as one of the great early pharmacists. The Pemberton family reportedly hold no ill-will towards Candler and the success that he went on to enjoy with the business, as they believe that Pemberton himself would have been incapable of driving the business to its current status. Thanks to new legislation and lessons from past mistakes, Coca-Cola no longer contains cocaine. As we’ve learned, this is probably in the best interests of everyone.

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