From the pages of the August, 1977 issue of High Times comes John Graff’s story about the origins of the all-American soft drink.
Everybody knows that once upon a time Coca-Cola really did contain cocaine, although almost nobody now alive can recall the taste and effects of “the real thing.” But during its Heroic Age, which lasted from 1886 to 1903, Coke was hailed as the salvation of the world and a wonder drug for man, woman and beast; it was first sold as a brain tonic and sure cure for alcoholism, headache, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholy and a host of afflictions both nervous and mucous. With the dawn of the [20th] century, Coca-Cola became a target of prohibitionists, nutritionists and Southern Methodists convinced that the blend of cocaine and caffeine was distilled in hell and drunk at the cost of your soul, if not your stomach. The outcry against Coke rings down through the decades—along with the court-stopping stunts of corporate lawyers who downed straight snorts of caffeine as well as bottled dead rats, roaches and black widow spiders to demonstrate the purity of their stockholders’ concoction. Today Coca-Cola is sipped, slurped and swallowed over 200 million times a day.
Coca-Cola paid a high price for its success in 1903, when the company bowed its head before the tidal wave of anticocaine-cola-ism and withdrew the psychoactive cocaine alkaloid from the featured coca ingredient of their fabulously popular soft drink. But today, as a result of overwhelming clinical evidence that cocaine is a “benign recreational drug” when used in moderation, and of mounting pressure on lawmakers to modify the 74-year-old ban on coke, the secret ingredient may be due for a comeback. Clearly, it’s time to take a pause that refreshes and review the strange history of social upheaval, religious hysteria and legal, political and medical log-rolling and buck-passing that drove cocaine underground while making the first company to mass-market it a highly successful, multinational corporation.
When Coca-Cola first appeared in the spring of 1886, America was at its pinnacle of enthusiasm for the leaf of the Andean coca plant and its by-products. Preparations made from whole leaf coca extracts were among the fastest-selling nostrums in the booming patent medicine industry. American physicians were in love with coca’s remarkable effectiveness in a number of therapeutic applications: as a general tonic and stimulant, for fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, digestive disorders, sore throat, hay fever, asthma, catarrh, high blood pressure, nervous disorders, melancholia and many more.
One of the most highly publicized uses of coca in the United States during the early 1880s was the one that attracted the attention of Sigmund Freud. The young neurologist described this uniquely American coca in Uber Coca (1884):
“Coca was tried in America for the treatment of chronic alcoholism at about the same time as it was introduced in connection with morphine addiction (1878). and most reports dealt with the two uses conjointly. In the treatment of alcoholism, too, there were cases of undoubted success, in which the compulsion to drink was either banished or alleviated.”
Soon after Freud made this observation, coca did acquire an immense popularity in this country as a treatment for alcoholism. By far the most widely used coca preparation at the time was an imported French product, Vin Mariani—a red Bordeaux liberally laced with whole leaf extract of coca. As more and more doctors began using Mariani’s wine to wean their patients from the horrors of alcohol and opium, a number of American drug manufacturers came out with Mariani spin-offs and by the turn of the century there were over a hundred different brands of coca wine available.
Coca-Cola was a direct descendant of this specific form of coca wine therapy. It was intentionally formulated to provide the same coca cure as the wines did but in a nonalcoholic, nonintoxicating syrup base. It was meant to be a drink that could help free the slaves of “drink.”
It was, in fact, the southern-based temperance movement that created the environment and the need for Coca-Cola. The South had a heavy booze problem during Reconstruction. The post-Civil War years were marked with widespread depression and despair. Fortunes were lost, the economy wrecked and much of the land devastated. Many a proud reb chose to drown his sorrows rather than try to get it all together again. Then too, there were plenty of wounded vets around who faithfully hung on to their “army disease” (morphine habit).
Victorian-thinking prohibitionists found a basis for their logic in Sir Francis Gabon’s theory that the drinking of alcohol was a barrier to the improvement of the species. Translated into the stark realities of Reconstruction, every drink was looked upon as a selfish vote against badly needed progress.
Darwinian master-race freaks like Galton marched arm in arm with the suffragettes (whose enfranchisement in 1920 made prohibition a sure thing) against the evils of poverty and drink. Drink ruined the drinker, tortured his wife and deprived his children. The progressive movement joined with the prohibition movement to get rid of saloons, and the fight against alcohol became a crusade to save rural America from the vice and corruption of the city. As historian Andrew Sinclair pointed out, “It is only in the context of this immense social change, the metamorphosis of Abraham Lincoln’s America into the America of Franklin Roosevelt, that the phenomenon of national prohibition can best be seen and understood.”
Under the burden of Reconstruction, the agrarian South was especially thirsty for this kind of moral/political reform with its emphasis on hard work, an honest dollar and the Bible. Fundamentalist preachers like Sam (“Every barroom is a recruiting office for hell”) Jones and Billy (“I tell you, the curse of almighty God is on the saloon”) Sunday rampaged through Dixie picking up converts by the thousands. In some communities a “dry” vote followed in the wake of revivalist hysteria. For the evangelical church militant, the struggle against drink was a last stand to save their whole way of life from the contamination of Yankee influences like the pope, the devil, jazz and, of course, all forms of intoxication. Expressed in the scientific terms of Marxism-Leninism, the temperance movement was an attempt to break the “rum slavery” by which the industrialized North held the underdeveloped South in a state of colonial dependency as a source of cheap materials and labor. Beyond it all hovered the menacing specter of the Negro.
Rather than permit the coloreds to get themselves in a lot of trouble drinking, raping and sinning, and have to go to all the trouble of lynching them afterwards, eminent Klan members reasoned, it would be kinder to confine all consumption of alcoholic beverages to the sipping of the Colonel’s julep, even if the poor darkies died of thirst. While awaiting the enactment of Prohibition through due process of law, of course, a few hundred thousand blacks were lynched anyway just to be on the safe side. The rational basis of this argument was vindicated around 1900, when it became known that the boldest black bucks were also slaves to the horse powder, but we are getting ahead of our story.
Atlanta, the birthplace of Coca-Cola, was the first target of the “dry” movement. As the South’s railhead connection to northern mills and manufactured goods (including drugs), Atlanta sprang up like a weed during Reconstruction and was afflicted with urban blight long before other southern cities. In 1885, Georgia passed a state-wide local option rule permitting any county to hold a “dry” referendum on petition of only one-tenth of the voters, and Atlanta soon became the first major U.S. city to go “dry.”
A special provision in the Atlanta referendum allowed the city’s saloonkeepers, brewers and distillers a seven-month grace period to liquidate their stocks and shut down. It was during this awkward stage of transition that the concept for Coca-Cola was born and its formula perfected. As one historian put it: “Long before the idea dawned upon the masses that there was even a remote possibility of swinging doors and brass foot-rails going out of style, certain Atlantans, perhaps gifted with a sixth sense, began to prepare for a prolonged period of drought, and when the Volstead act became a law (1920)…this city already had become distinguished as the ‘soft drink’ center of the globe.”
It was in the spring of 1885 that John Styth Pemberton, the Merlinesque proprietary druggist who invented Coca-Cola syrup, came out with his first coca preparation: French Wine of Coca–Ideal Tonic (trademark registered May 19, 1885). Dr. Pemberton, as he was known in the profession, failed to perceive the incongruity of marketing a wine-based medicinal at a time when consumers were enraged over alcoholic beverages. His product sat on the shelves collecting dust.
Pemberton next hit upon an ingenious idea to transform his Ideal Tonic into a virtuous temperance drink. First he added an extract of the caffeinated kola nut—another reputed hangover cure that produced a disinclination to alcohol—to his featured alcohol antagonist, extract of coca. Then he eliminated the undesirable wine and instead blended his plant extractives into a nonalcoholic, sweet syrup base, thereby producing a potent but nonintoxicating “soft” drink alternative for the slaves of drink.
In December of ’85, Pemberton found three backers and formed the Pemberton Chemical Company (with a working capital of $160,000) to develop his new improved “Brain Tonic.” According to an account written by Howard C. Candler, the Coca-Cola Company’s second president: “Since this medicine might relieve the results of intemperance, the good doctor apparently believed it would promote temperance and replace alcoholic drinks. All four partners were doubtless intrigued with the prospective popular appeal for their product.”
The following spring Pemberton was busy at his “laboratory” at 107 Marietta Street, the headquarters of Pemberton Chemical Company—a red brick antebellum mansion owned by Ed Holland, one of the partners. With his patriarchal beard and mild blue eyes, the 53-year-old pharmacist must have conjured the image of a renaissance alchemist at work stirring his latest concoction in a 30-gallon brass kettle hanging over the backyard kitchen fire. The object of this series of experiments was to get rid of the nasty taste of the medicine without interfering with the effects of the active ingredients.
Though he held a degree in pharmacy, Pemberton’s approach to his science was unorthodox. He was an empirical experimenter whose methods were largely based on actual results rather than the dictates of scientific dogma. Finally, in May, after months of mixing and tasting, he found a combination of essential oils and volatile aromatics that could mask the bitter taste of the coca and kola extracts without sacrificing their effects.
At the beginning of June 1886, the first batch of Coca-Cola syrup, packaged rather conspicuously in recycled pint beer bottles, went on sale at a few Atlanta drug stores for 25 cents. One month later, on July 1, 1886, the city’s saloons closed their doors for the first time in history. That year the Pemberton Chemical Company spent $73.96 on advertising, and recorded sales of 25 gallons of Coca-Cola syrup, mostly over the soda fountain counter at nearby Jacob’s Drug Store.
An incident occurred at Jacob’s during the course of that first “dry” summer that changed the course of civilization. According to Willis E. Venable, the soda fountain man at Jacob’s, a customer came in complaining of a headache and asked for a bottle of Coca-Cola syrup. As the bottle was handed to him, the man asked Venable to open it and mix up a glass on the spot so he could get immediate relief. Venable was near the soda fountain and, rather than walk to the water tap clear at the other end of the counter, he suggested soda water be used instead of tap. The anxious customer shrugged off the minor details, took a long, historic pull of the world’s first Coca-Cola, and remarked that it really tasted fine—much better than mixed with tap water as the label suggested. Venable started keeping an open bottle of Coca-Cola on his back bar shelf for people who came in complaining of headache. Word got around town and a few other soda fountains followed suit.
Pemberton and associates had never envisioned their medicinal syrup dispensed at soda fountains alongside the common fruit-flavored beverages. But even though the idea sounded a bit demeaning, they pounced on this novel marketing concept. The instructions on the labels were changed and the advertisements for spring of 1887 read:
1,049 gallons were sold that year. Pemberton knew he had hit the jackpot. Then suddenly, at the peak of brisk summer sales, Pemberton fell ill and couldn’t carry on manufacturing the syrup. In the bud of success but still heavily in debt, he was forced to sell off two-thirds interest in the formula at $1,200 each just to meet costs.
Later that year, as it became more and more apparent that he might not recover from his sickness, Pemberton sought out the man he thought best suited to continue the Coca-Cola crusade. His choice was Asa Griggs Candler, a prosperous pharmacist and drug manufacturer who had fronted him supplies and equipment over the past few years.
Though there are variations, one story has it that Pemberton called Candler to his bedside in early April of 1888 and offered him the Coca-Cola formula to repay his long overdue debt. Candler refused at first, but later accepted and wrote off the debt just to ease the good doctor’s conscience. When Pemberton died on August 16, 1888, all the druggists gathered at Candler’s Drug Store. Candler accompanied the remains back to Pemberton’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia, and all the drug stores of Atlanta closed during the funeral hour.
Despite slightly conflicting transfer-of-title stories, it’s clear that Pemberton’s manufacturing equipment was moved to the basement of Candler’s establishment at 47 Peachtree Street sometime between April and August of ’88, and Candler, a shrewd business man, started turning out product immediately.
Candler soon held two-thirds interest in Coca-Cola, giving him control over the trademark and formula. He wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Pemberton product and embarked on a series of experiments of his own to improve the flavor and stabilize its composition to insure uniformity from batch to batch. This involved changing the bouquet of aromatic essential oils and acids but didn’t affect the plant extracts. His ads for the syrup still carried the following description: “Delicious, Refreshing, Exhilarating. Invigorating—The new and popular soda fountain drink containing the tonic properties of the wonderful coca plant and the famous cola nuts, on draught at the popular soda fountain at 5 cents per glass.”
Although the temperance claims were dropped, it’s interesting to note that bulk quantities of the syrup were shipped in secondhand whiskey barrels; scrubbed, scraped and repainted with the familiar red and white logo. When asked later in life if he had any idea of the potential of Coca-Cola when he bought it, Candler replied: “To me it is a wonderful romance, but if people knew the good qualities of Coca-Cola as I know them, it would be necessary for us to lock the doors of our factories and have a guard with a shotgun to make the people line up to buy it.”
In 1890, Candler decided to close his lucrative drug business and devote all his time and energies to Coca-Cola. In April of ’91, he bought out the remaining one-third interest and became sole proprietor of formula, trademark and all other rights, bringing his total cash outlay for the entire enterprise to $2,300. Early in ’92, the Coca-Cola Company was granted a charter by the state of Georgia, and the following year the trademark with its distinctive flowing script was registered. By 1894, Coca-Cola was sold in every state in the Union and a decade later gallonage sales reached one million.
By the turn of the century, every soda jerk in the country knew exactly what you wanted if you asked for “coke,” “dope,” a “cold dope,” a “shot” or a “shot in the arm.” Down south, drug stores were nicknamed “hop joints,” and the bright red and white horse drawn carts that dispensed Coca-Cola to cotton mill workers and Negro labor gangs were called “dope wagons.”
From the very start, Candler took every precaution to prevent his trade secret formula from slipping into the wrong hands. All aspects of the recipe were classified. Employees mixed the large vats of sugar and water base, but only Candler himself and F.M. Robinson, one of Pemberton’s assistants, knew how to put the rest of it together. No one else was permitted in the mixing room while the extract was prepared. As the various ingredients arrived from suppliers, the labels were removed by Candler or Robinson and the containers and their shipping documents were placed under lock and key. They handled all the paper work and any other details concerning the ingredients so that nothing could be learned from accounting and inventory records.
Later on, as volume production precluded such close scrutiny, a numbering code was devised to maintain secrecy, and to this day the company still refers to the ingredients as numbered “merchandises.” In his history of the Coca-Cola phenomenon, The Big Drink, Eli Kahn says that there are at least 14 “merchandises” in Coca-Cola, and he lists the five that the company has confirmed: Merchandise No. 1 is sugar, No. 2 is caramel, No. 3 is caffeine, No. 4 is phosphoric acid and No. 5 is a blend of three parts coca and one part cola. Kahn says that over the years hundreds of chemists from at least a dozen nations have tried to identify the rest of the ingredients to find the secret of Coke’s epic popularity. Of course no one will ever know whether any of them were successful because company policy prohibits acknowledgement of such a feat. However, Kahn does list a number of ingredients that outsiders have claimed to have found in the stuff: cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, vegetable glycerin (animal glycerin would offend Moslems and Jews), lavender, fluid extract of guarana, lime juice and various citrus oils, plus one truly secret ingredient that the Coca-Cola people call 7X.
Since Pemberton’s day, only a handful of persons have been initiated into the exact composition which still defies the latest techniques of chemical dissection including chromatography and infrared spectrum analysis. The magic formula is generally regarded as the most carefully guarded secret in American industry.
Such secrecy was an absolute necessity. Prior to prohibition, local saloons got their sarsaparillas and carbonated mixers from nearby small-time suppliers. When Coca-Cola came along on the heel of prohibition and flooded the market, every woodshed and basement sarsaparilla operation in the country wanted a piece of the cola action. So while Coca-Cola was struggling to expand facilities to meet a mushrooming demand, the fledgling enterprise had to fend off a multitude of hometown imitations that sprung up like toadstools all over the countryside. One by one, Coca-Cola hauled the “impostors” into court, aggressively asserting its exclusive trademark rights on copycat drinks with names like: Coke-Ola, Coca & Cola, Ko-Kola, Coak, Co-Kola, Cola-Coke, KokoKola, Afri-Cola, Klu-Ko Kola, Nerv Ola, Revive Ola, Wise Ola, Loco Kola, Hepsi-Pepsi- and Popsi-Colas and Hav-A-Dope.
The precious trademark and formula were preserved, but the company’s good name faded fast. With cocaine among its secret ingredients, the company’s reputation inevitably fell prey to the same moral indignation it had helped to foster. Within a decade Candler saw the virtuous temperance drink he bought in 1888 bubble up into an ugly moral/political issue that indelibly tainted his sweet success. A man who never indulged in alcohol, tobacco or any other “form of dissipation” (except Coke), Candler was soon enmeshed in a whirlpool drug controversy that dragged his name down in the minds of his contemporaries as one of the most flagrantly prosperous dope peddlers of all time.
Before he became involved with Coca-Cola, Candler’s reputation in Atlanta as an ethical pharmacist and businessman was beyond reproach. Born and raised on a farm in Carroll County, Georgia, he never forgot the simple virtues of his rural childhood. As a young man he developed a strong self-discipline and deep moral convictions. He believed in the Bible and accepted it literally. At age 20 (1871), he joined the Methodist Episcopal church, one of the heaviest temperance-oriented religious organizations in the country at that time, and remained very active in church affairs all his life.
An avid fan of revival meetings, his favorite preacher was the great Sam Jones of Cartersville, Georgia. Young Asa was an apprentice pharmacist to two doctors in Cartersville the summer of 1872 when the historic conversion of Mr. Jones took place. Sam was a lawyer, and a good one, but his reputation in the local saloons surpassed his dramatic performances at the Bar. That summer Sam “discovered his disease (drink), found the remedy (God)” and “went from his knees to the pulpit…and spoke only as a man can who knew the full saving power of his Lord and Savior.”
The event made a deep and lasting impression on Candler, who never missed one of Sam’s annual convocations at the Cartersville tabernacle. His son Howard recalls that the near-hysteria of those meetings was like a potent wine to his father’s nervous system: “His eyes would shine, his body become tense, and his whole being pulse with the exhilaration of the exhortations which brought an awakening of religious interest in his friends, neighbors and family, often resulting in conversions….He was frequently physically sick from exhaustion following a series of meetings.”
Candler instilled the same mystical faith in both his product and his people. His employees were part of his “Coca-Cola family,” and he was concerned that they be as virtuous as the product they handled. It remains one of history’s great paradoxes how this devout druggist, whose knowledge of his trade could not have concealed for long the storm clouds that were gathering around cocaine even in Doc Pemberton’s lifetime, kept his faith in the Peruvian export until the bitter end, and almost lost his empire as a result.
As a wholesale drug dealer and manufacturer, Candler had to keep abreast of pharmaceutical literature. He certainly was aware of the properties of the active ingredients coca (cocaine) and cola (caffeine), which were in the formula before he bought it. We can only speculate on what Candler’s reactions were to the first “cocaine habit” scares that reverberated through the patent medicine industry just months after Coca-Cola became a reality.
Like any other druggist at the time, Candler carried a variety of coca nostrums (wines, fluid extracts, liqueurs, teas, lozenges, ointments, cigarettes and cheroots), and pure cocaine was sold over the counter at $2.50 an ounce without a prescription or even a signature. In comparison to the cocaine content of other preparations available, a knowledgeable pharmacist could have reasonably judged the relatively small amounts of the alkaloid found in a 7-ounce serving of Coca-Cola to be well within the limits of harmlessness and certainly not enough to form an addiction to.
Furthermore, Candler already had a vested interest in Pemberton’s success, and it’s very likely that he carried Coca-Cola syrup in his own establishment right from the start. As soon as the town went “dry,” his counter receipts must have reflected the parade from the saloon to the soda fountain, and knowing the strength of his personal moral code, it’s hard to believe that he wasn’t even more intrigued with the temperance drink idea than Pemberton.
By the time Candler took over Coca-Cola in mid-’88, two clearly divergent opinions on the existence of a “cocaine habit” had already been well publicized in the medical press, but the fate of the new wonder drug was still uncertain. One side said it was a dangerous, habit-forming drug, and the other claimed it was harmless even in large doses and not any more addicting than tea or coffee. Actually, very few physicians and pharmacists knew enough about the drug to venture an opinion on the validity of either claim.
Most inauspiciously, the horrible habit-forming “phantom” in cocaine was born the exact same month as Coca-Cola. In May 1886, while Pemberton was putting the finishing touches on his “Ideal Brain Tonic,” a German morphine addiction specialist named Emil Erlenmyer published a well-documented rejection of earlier claims that cocaine was useful in the treatment of drug addiction. Many of the morphine addicts he had treated simply formed a new, more devastating addiction to the would-be cure. He vehemently condemned cocaine, calling it the “third scourge of the human race,” worse than alcohol or opium.
It was about this same time that the medical profession was starting to become disenchanted with cocaine as a local anesthetic. Since the discovery of total anesthesia via ether inhalation in 1842, doctors had dreamed of a drug like cocaine that could numb specific regions of the anatomy without anesthetizing the whole body. When Karl Koller, one of Freud’s colleagues, successfully demonstrated cocaine’s anesthetizing effects on the human eye (his own, first) in 1884, the discovery sent a thrill through the medical world. Armed with the marvelous new painkiller but oblivious to its dangers, doctors rushed into another era of exploration and discovery anticipating miracles. And more than a few of these independent researchers began their investigations on themselves.
(Roller’s discovery created a whole new industry in Peru. In the summer of 1884 the entire world’s supply of cocaine was limited to the few grams manufactured by the House of Merck at Freud’s request. That fall there was hardly a gram available anywhere and Peru began exporting over 3,000 pounds of cocaine annually.)
Though the local anesthetic properties of cocaine were confirmed, the side effects of the drug proved to be unpredictable. There were numerous mishaps, some ending in tragedy. Many of these negative results were due to the use of too high a concentration of the drug, but even in smaller doses, some patients (and some doctors) exhibited dangerously adverse reactions. So after a few short less-than-euphoric years of experimentation, the medical world began searching for a less toxic substitute for cocaine.
Freud’s last piece on cocaine, Craving for and Fear of Cocaine (1887), is remarkable for its clarity and understanding of the problems cocaine was creating. The opinions he expressed are the same as those gaining acceptance today. He agreed with Erlenmyer and others that cocaine should not be used to break the morphine habit, but he emphatically challenged the implied conclusion that cocaine itself was addictive: “All reports of addiction to cocaine and deterioration resulting from it refer to morphine addicts, persons who, already in the grip of one demon are so weak in will power, so susceptible, that they would misuse, and indeed have misused, any stimulant held out to them. Cocaine has claimed no other, no victim on its own [Freud’s italics].” Freud distinguished between the behavioral characteristics of the addiction-prone personality and the behavioral effects triggered by the drug itself. He considered cocaine’s addictive potential to be “on a par with coffee or tea, an entirely different sort of habit from morphia addiction.” Unfortunately, few of his contemporaries were quite so perceptive, and his accurate estimation of cocaine’s potential usefulness in “certain nervous disorders” was largely ignored.
But the vast majority of these criticisms were leveled at cocaine, the alkaloid, and not at coca, the leaf. Coca-Cola was made from a whole-leaf extraction in which physicians had complete confidence. Whole-leaf coca preparations had been used in medical practice for decades with almost always favorable results.
In his book Cocaine, Richard Ashley describes the moral dilemma “respectable” folks faced in the Nineties. “Those who did not like to admit to themselves or to others that they were regular users of cocaine, opium or alcohol—facts which could hardly be concealed if they drank openly in a public saloon or bought their cocaine and opium from the neighborhood druggist—had only to buy the appropriate patent medicine.” Any old excuse was good enough reason for a Coca-Cola—anything from “tired and thirsty” or “headache,” to “don’t tell me you’re quittin’ too!” “Yeah. I’m reformin’ my ways. No more booze for me, Slim, just plain ol’ Co’Cola from now on!”
Alcohol and cocaine became a favorite mix in wet and dry watering holes alike. While city slickers dumped sparkly powders into their shot glasses of Pemberton’s elixir, discreet drinkers in drier towns were dumping bootleg hooch into every sparkling cup of temperance Coke. Its dark reddish brown color and spicy sweet taste was a perfect masquerade-mixer for any barnyard buzz no matter how crude it turned out to be.
It soon became apparent to even the most naive W.C.T.U.’ers that many “reformed’’ husbands still had a bottle problem, only now it was a Coke bottle. The obvious conclusion was, of course, that Coca-Cola (“Well, it’s got cocaine in it, don’t it?”) must be habit-forming. And thus the “Coca-Cola addict” was born.
As the century drew to a close, the cocaine problem flared into a burning issue down South. With alcohol no longer available in most counties, it became necessary to substitute another rationale for the inferiority of the black race in which the white trash of Dixie found it crucial to believe. You couldn’t pick up a newspaper in those days without reading some lurid account of the brutal dorking of a southern belle by “coke-mad black savages,” “coca-drunk cannibals,” “coffee colored cokehounds” and other manifestations of the “cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” TRUE FACT: Cocaine was regularly distributed to black work gangs by white bosses who knew of its exhilarating effects and encouraged its use.
The “vicious coke fiend” became a convenient political explanation for all the racial heaviness, and just about everybody bought the idea but the Coca-Cola people. Coke was guilty by association: it contained cocaine, and it too was popularly distributed among the poorer classes, namely the black criminal element. The Coca-Cola habit haunted the proud southern company, and with the dawn of the twentieth century a moral backlash threatened the very existence of Atlanta’s “temperance drink.”
As the cocaine controversy thickened, Candler too became hypersensitive about his product and the company’s image. He could never tolerate a misspelling of Coca-Cola and reprimanded anyone who did so, including customers. No two words irritated him more than coke and dope. He did everything within the company’s power to discourage the public from using the nicknames, but coke and dope pursued the Coke sign like the plague wherever it went, and it went everywhere.
Coca-Cola addicts started attracting the law in 1902. The Virginia legislature was considering a ban on Coca-Cola because a doctor claimed a patient of his was driven to suicide by drinking the stuff. Other cases of death due to Coca-Cola habit (notably among pharmacists, doctors and patients) were reported, but on closer investigation by the company, it was found that all the victims were mixing alcohol and/or other drugs into their friendly Coke bottles.
Coca-Cola countered these attacks by inviting government inspectors and outside chemists to examine its ingredients and manufacturing processes. One government chemist, Dr. Charles A. Crampton, testified that he had detected the presence of cocaine in the syrup. Still, the results were unanimous: it was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Coke was not habit-forming, it contained less caffeine than an average cup of coffee or tea and that it was healthful and in some conditions even beneficial.
But these findings got lost in the back pages of the dailies. 1902 was the year the public fell in love with Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his “poison squad.” Wiley, a medical doctor and chemist, was the most outspoken advocate of the pure food movement in the federal government’s employ. As chief chemist of the Agriculture Department’s Bureau of Chemistry, Wiley crusaded for wholesome, nutritious, “honest” foods—free from preservatives, color and flavor additives and other impurities due to unsanitary processing and packaging.
Wiley next turned his attention to the evils of the patent medicine industry. The medical and pharmaceutical professions were in danger of losing their grip on the nation’s health dollar to the self-medication fad. They urged the government to take action against the unethical manufacture of secret-formula nostrums and panaceas. Wiley heard their pleas and got government funding to build a lab to verify the ingredients and investigate the integrity of all products using medicinal claims in their advertisements.
Once again the Coca-Cola Company took the legal offensive and sued the United States Government for $11,000 in federal taxes imposed on its product as a medicinal proprietary. It was common knowledge that in years past the company had often used panacean hyperbole to describe its product to the public. Still, the formidable Coca-Cola legal team managed to convince a jury that the company had since cleaned up its act and the product was sold only as a soda fountain refreshment and nothing more.
Such brash legal maneuvers infuriated Wiley, who considered the whole soft drink industry a fraud. Wiley maintained that no drink that contained either cocaine or caffeine should be labelled “soft.’’ This deception was especially dangerous, he pointed out, because parents were glad to have their children patronize the soda fountain rather than the saloon—not knowing what habit-forming and deleterious substances were dispensed in soft drinks. He called the makers of Coca-Cola “dope peddlers.”
An article in the New York Tribune for June 21, 1903, cited the city as “particularly affected” by the cocaine menace and urged legal action against the sale of “a soda fountain drink manufactured in Atlanta and known as Coca-Cola.”
Later that year, without fanfare or fight or even an explanation, the Coca-Cola Company switched to decocainized leaves—coca leaves from which the cocaine had already been exhausted, thereby castrating the featured ingredient of its fabled success formula. It was a terrible risk, but one the company had to take.
The public went right on guzzling the “new stuff” at record rates, as if nothing had happened. Cocaine was such a hot tamale no one had the nerve to hitch about the missing “kick.” The whole country kicked the “Coke habit” overnight with hardly a whimper from anyone—proof that the Coca-Cola “addict” was never anything more than a frothy mirage conjured out of a drug-thirsty public’s dry imagination.
Wiley battled the caffeine in Coca-Cola for the rest of his professional career, but without success. The formula has remained basically the same since 1903. There was one very close call in 1911 during the House Ways and Means Committee hearings on opium. Rep. Francis Burton Harrison, another notorious looney and author of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, asked Dr. Charles West, testifying on behalf of the National Druggists’ Association, if he thought Coca-Cola was habit forming. Dr. West replied that it was habit forming and said Pepsi was too. Harrison then concluded that coca leaves should be included in his proposed ban on addictive drugs.
But, by some strange stroke of political luck, the Coca-Cola formula survived the Harrison Act. A special provision was inserted in the legislation permitting the use of spent coca leaves (the refuse product from the manufacture of cocaine) in the manufacture of soft drinks. Meanwhile, the subliminal suggestion that Coke still contains a narcotic has lingered on in the public mind to this day, and psychologists have theorized that such suspicions have actually boosted sales.
It took nearly half a century to breed the coke-Coke connection out of the consuming public’s memory. The word Coke didn’t appear on Coke labels until 1941. Even then, in order to have it registered with the U.S. Patent Office, Coca-Cola had to engage an independent-research organization to prove that the word had an alternate meaning besides “a by-product of coal.’’ Thousands were interviewed, and the consensus was that just as “bike” means “bicycle” and “Chevy” means “Chevrolet,” Coke means Coca-Cola and nothing else.
After the trademark was registered in 1945, Coca-Cola spent hundreds of thousands of dollars reminding the public that Coke was spelled with a capital C. Even Nobel prizewinner John Steinbeck got a friendly letter reprimanding him for making Okies into small-c cokies in The Grapes of Wrath.
Of course the grand irony of it all is that we now know that the worst ingredient in the Pemberton formula was neither the coca nor the cola, but the deadly refined white sugar—four teaspoonfuls per serving—and nobody from the government or the medical professions has ever made a real effort to make Coca-Cola take it out.
Still, looking back, you can’t help admiring how accurately Doc Pemberton diagnosed the great thirst for refreshment among the American people. The “land of opportunity” bred a nation of mentally strained ambitions and physically drained energies that screamed for coke and cola. An old promotional booklet, “The Romance of Coca-Cola” (1916), discussed the fact that the world’s most developed nations were caffeine drinkers. In an even older brochure from back in the days when the “intellectual soda-fountain beverage” still had a kick, the company boasted: “If we could hold a congress of Coca-Cola drinkers, there would be gathered together some of the greatest minds in America.”