Thirst for Knowledge

Thirst for Knowledge

Get a glimpse at the interesting history of America's number-one soft drink.

Coca-Cola recently celebrated the 100th birthday of its iconic contoured bottle, created Nov. 16, 1915, at the Root Glass Co. in Terre Haute, Ind., and introduced in 1916. Coca-Cola bottlers were battling imitators, so Root Glass staff machinist Earl R. Dean rose to the challenge of designing a container so unique that a customer could distinguish an ice-cold Coke not only by its look but also its feel. Dean based his design on a drawing of a cocoa pod and was rewarded with lifetime employment.
 
Dean had been unable to find pictures of either the coca leaf or the kola nut—the two ingredients Coca-Cola is named for and the sources, respectively, of its original cocaine and caffeine. Ironically, given sugared soft drinks’ current public-health demonization, most famous brands originated as patent medicines. Coca-Cola contained small amounts of cocaine—equaling one-four-hundredth of a grain of cocaine per ounce of concentrated syrup in 1902—from its 1886 invention until the turn of the century, with trace levels until 1929. Like many competitors, Coke still delivers a jolt of caffeine.
 
Sparkling water was associated with health almost from its inception. Joseph Priestley, the chemist who discovered oxygen, first infused water with carbon dioxide in 1767, creating the first “popping” soda water. Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman followed with the invention of an apparatus that used sulfuric acid to make carbonated water from chalk. Another Swede, Jöns Berzelius, got the idea to add flavorings.
 
In the United States, Yale chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman began selling carbonated water at a New Haven apothecary in 1806. His business ultimately failed, but the connection between “soda fountains” and drugstores persisted. Tristan Donovan, author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, explains, “The process of carbonating water and making syrups or flavorings was something pharmacists already had the skill set to do. They were the obvious people to take this on, and they started adding ingredients they thought were health-providing.” Sweet-tasting sodas also masked the bitter flavors of medicines, most of which were in liquid form.
 
Sarsaparilla, an ingredient in root beer, was thought to treat syphilis, among other ills, and peddled by enterprising Shakers as early as 1835. Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires vended another cure-all in root beer, sassafras, at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. Hires introduced a carbonated root beer in 1893 with the slogan, “Join Health and Cheer/Drink Hires Rootbeer.” Today’s Hires product no longer contains untreated sassafras oil, which the FDA banned as a potential carcinogen in 1960.
 
In 1885, another pharmacist, Charles Alderton, invented what’s generally considered America’s oldest national carbonated beverage brand, Dr Pepper. (The period in Dr. was dropped in the 1950s lest consumers believe a real doctor bottled the drink.) Inspired by the mixture of fruit flavors—later codified as 23 flavors—perfuming Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas, where he worked, Alderton created what fountain patrons originally called the “Waco.” More than a dozen different tales have sought to explain the Dr Pepper name, including that owner Morrison chose it to honor his first drugstore employer, Dr. Charles T. Pepper. Initially a regional brand, Dr Pepper became famous at another exposition, the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which also popularized hot dogs, hamburgers and ice cream cones.
 
Other sodas with patent-medicine origins included Moxie, a New England brand created by Dr. Augustin Thompson in 1876 as a cure for “brain and nervous exhaustion, loss of manhood, imbecility and helplessness, softening of the brain, locomotor ataxia, and insanity.”
 
Coca-Cola was created by Atlanta physician and pharmacist John S. Pemberton, a Civil War veteran whom some accounts say sought an antidote to the morphine addiction common among veterans (including himself). He first made “coca wine,” a mixture of coca and alcohol invented by Parisian chemist Angelo Mariani in 1863.
 
“Pemberton’s French Wine Coca” was said to be “a most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs.” Happily for soft drink history, however, Atlanta passed a prohibition 34 years before the rest of the country—just as his drink was taking off. Pemberton replaced the wine with sugar and sold it for five cents a glass as “Coca-Cola: The temperance drink.”
 

The name is credited to Pemberton’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, who also designed the distinctive “Coca-Cola” script still used today. Much of Coca-Cola’s success is also attributed to Asa Griggs Candler, often called the company’s co-founder, who took over the fledgling firm after Pemberton’s death in 1888. With an aggressive free-sample program, Candler expanded the company beyond Atlanta soda fountains.

Soft drinks still weren’t widely available in bottles, however. Problems in the US glass industry slowed the growth of bottled soft drinks, and keeping the carbonation in soda pop proved a challenge until the 1892 invention of the crown cork bottle seal by William Painter. The Baltimore machine-shop operator’s crimped, cork-lined metal cap design is still essentially used today.
 
In 1899, three Tennessee businessmen purchased the bottling rights to Coca-Cola for just a dollar. Benjamin Thomas, Joseph Whitehead and John Lupton developed what became a worldwide bottling system, relying on regional franchises rather than corporate ownership. By 1915, so many imitators had sprung up that franchisees demanded a unique Coke bottle.
 

Among those rivals was Brad’s Drink, concocted in 1893 by yet another druggist, Caleb Davis Bradham of New Bern, NC. Five years later, he renamed his drink Pepsi-Cola, reflecting his belief that it would relieve indigestion (dyspepsia). The company grew rapidly and by 1910 boasted 240 franchises in 24 states. But WWI sugar shortages and an inopportune purchase of high-priced sugar crippled Pepsi-Cola, which ultimately declared bankruptcy.

Bought by Loft Inc., a candy company, Pepsi began to replace Coke at the soda fountains also owned by the firm. The introduction of a bargain 12-ounce bottle in the depths of the Depression further gained market share with the radio jingle, “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces, that’s a lot/Twice as much for a nickel, too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.” So did 1940s advertisements targeting African-Americans, a neglected customer group. In the 1960s, the focus turned to the young “Pepsi Generation.”
 

By 1983, Pepsi was outselling Coke in supermarkets, leading to the disastrous rollout of New Coke. After a retooling and relentless brand marketing—as seen in this year’s Coke bottle centennial—today Coca-Cola is by far the number-one soft drink, followed by Diet Coke and Pepsi.

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