Addiction, trial and error part of Coke’s humble beginning

john s. pemberton statue

Coca-Cola products are recognized and consumed around the globe. Today, products of the Coca-Cola Co. are consumed at the rate of more than 1.8 billion drinks per day. Compare that with the first year the product we call Coke was “on the market,” 1886, when sales averaged nine drinks a day and tallied just $50 for the entire year.

Coke’s creator was Dr. John S. Pemberton, a Tennessee native who had moved to Georgia to study medicine in 1850. Pemberton was serving as a lieutenant colonel in the 12th Georgia Cavalry (state guards), when he was wounded during one of the very last clashes of the Civil War. On April 16, 1865, at the Battle of Columbus, Ga., Pemberton suffered a serious injury when he was slashed across his chest with a sabre.

During his recovery he became addicted to morphine, like many wounded veterans of the conflict.

Pemberton had the advantage of having been a pharmacist in civilian life, so he sought a cure for his addiction and the following year began work on devising painkillers that would serve as opium-free alternatives to morphine.

Before long, Pemberton was experimenting with coca and coca wines, eventually creating a version of a then-popular patent medicine containing kola nuts and damiana, a shrub native to Texas, Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. He called his concoction, an alcoholic beverage, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.

Pemberton moved from Columbus to Atlanta in 1870 and continued to sell his beverage, among other items. He was forced to changed gears in 1886 when the city of Atlanta and Fulton County enacted temperance legislation.

In an effort to provide a non-alcoholic alternative to his French Wine Coca, Pemberton tried a variety of alternatives, ultimately blending the base syrup with carbonated water. He ultimately opted to market it as a fountain drink rather than a medicine.

Pemberton never got rich off Coca-Cola. In fact, he never even kicked his opiate addiction.

Sick, still addicted to morphine and nearly bankrupt, Pemberton sold a portion of the rights to the soft drink to his business partners in 1888 for approximately $500. Later that year he died of stomach cancer.

Pemberton had recognized at least a portion of Coke’s potential and left an ownership share to his only child, Charles Pemberton. Pemberton’s son, however, died from complications related to opium addiction six years later with little to show for his father’s efforts.

Asa Candler, the Atlanta businessman who bought out Pemberton, formed the Coca-Cola Co. in 1892 and ended up making millions of dollars.

Coca-Cola, created by an ex-cavalryman trying to deal with prohibition legislation, is today one of the largest global brands in history.

(Top: Statue of Dr. John S. Pemberton, Atlanta, Ga.)

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4 thoughts on “Addiction, trial and error part of Coke’s humble beginning

  1. This is such cool information. We recently went to the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, Georgia on a tour. What an awesome time to hear all of this history. In fact, tomorrow we will be highlighting some of the trip in the afternoon on our Travels in the South series. Hope you will visit. XOXO – Bacon

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