John “Doc” Pemberton was an Atlanta chemist. After the Civil War he, like many chemists of the time, used coca-derived “wine” as a prescription for various ailments, real and imagined. Some of the wines contained distilled coca leaves, which cocaine is made from. Others contained the less expensive already distilled cocaine. Cocaine during this time was considered a harmless drug, not unlike caffeine today.
Towards the late 1800s, a temperance (anti-alcohol) movement was becoming popular in certain cities, including Atlanta. In response, Pemberton created a non-alcoholic version of the coca-wine, an extract of cocoa leaves combined with kola nuts. He combined the syrup with carbonated water in May 1886. Bookkeeper Frank Robinson submitted a patent for the formula and coined the name Coca-Cola, as well as creating a label that used the iconic font still in use today.
Early sales were slow. In the first year, Pemberton sold 25 gallons of Coca-Cola syrup, increasing to 1,049 gallons the second year. In 1888 Pemberton’s health took a turn for the worse and he sold the business to Asa Candler for $2,300, dying soon after.
Candler grew Coca-Cola sales in Pemberton’s pharmacy and soon realized the soda business was worth more than the pharmacy. He regrouped with Robinson and several others to scale the business. They capitalized their new soda business with $100,000 and advertised their drink heavily.
Coca Cola grew in popularity as Candler saturation marketed using coupons, signage, calendars, clocks … virtually anything the Coca-Cola name could be printed upon. From 1894-1913 Candler gave out so many coupons that one in nine Americans had a free Coca-Cola drink.
In 1894 chemist Joseph Biedenharn started bottling Coca-Cola, selling cases along the Mississippi river. In 1899 Benjamin Thomas purchased exclusive US nationwide rights to bottle Coca Cola from Candler. He eventually could not manage the volume and sold smaller geographic bottling rights.
The first bottling factory opened in Chattanooga in 1899; twenty years later there were more than 1,000 bottling plants. Imitators and counterfeiters constituted a serious problem in the early days, so the company designed a difficult to replicate bottle that became an iconic trademark.
Initially marketed as both a medicine and a “soft” (non-alcoholic) drink the firm eventually quit advertising as a medicine to avoid regulation. Starting in the 1890s, the company eventually lowered the amount of cocaine in the drink to a trace. By 1929 the Coke recipe eliminated cocaine entirely. Candler said he would have eliminated cocaine earlier but feared false advertising due to the product name that implied some amount of cocaine.
A year earlier, Dr. Pepper, invented by pharmacist Charles Alderton, predated Coca Cola by one year.