John Pemberton was born in 1831 in Knoxville, Georgia. He attended pharmacy school, and owned an apothecary and soda fountain in Columbus, Georgia at 11 7th Street. He'd fought for The Confederacy during the Civil War, and appears to have become addicted to morphine after being wounded in The War. After the war, Pemberton moved to Atlanta and started making and selling patent medicines such as Globe Flower Cough Syrup, Extract of Stillingia, Triplex Liver Pills, and Lemon & Orange Elixer. One of Pemberton's biggest selling items was French Wine of Coca.
As related by Frederick Allen in Secret Formula, his history of Coca-Cola:
"In April and early May of 1886, Pemberton dispatched runners from his basement to Willis Venable's soda fountain three blocks away with small samples of his concoction for taste tests by the customers. Venable, the self-styled "Soda Water King of the South," operated a popular business (with a 25-foot-long marble counter) on the ground floor of Jacobs' Pharmacy at 2 Peachtree Street, in the exact center of downtown Atlanta known as Five Points. Legend has it that Venable "accidentally" served the new syrup with carbonated water, but actually the plan from the very outset was to squirt it into a glass and spritz it with cold, carbonated water from the fountain. Years later, Frank Robinson recalled that as Pemberton made the adjustments in the formula for the new syrup, "it was taken to Mr. Venable's soda fountain for the purpose of trying it and ascertaining whether it was something the people would like or not." After various modifications, Robinson reported in his dry, undramatic way, "It seems to be satisfactory."
Advertisement from New England Druggist 1899 (Click for larger Image)
Cocaine wasn't the culprit. From 1885, when Coca-Cola was named, its two medicinal ingredients were extract of coca leaves and kola nuts. It's still difficult to determine just how much cocaine was originally in the formulation, but the elixir unquestionably contained cocaine in its early days. Frederick Allen describes the public attitude towards cocaine that existed as Coca-Cola's inventors continued to perfect their formula in 1891:
"The first stirrings of a national debate had begun over the negative aspects of cocaine, and manufacturers were growing defensive over charges that use of their products might lead to "cocainism" or the "cocaine habit". The full-throated fury against cocaine was still a few years off, and Candler and Robinson were anxious to continue promoting the supposed benefits of the coca leaf, but there was no reason to risk putting more than a tiny bit of coca extract in their syrup. They cut the amount to a mere trace."
Allen continues, explaining that cocaine continued to be an ingredient in the syrup in order to protect the trade name "Coca-Cola":
"But neither could [Asa] Candler take the simple step of eliminating the fluid extract of coca leaves from the formula. Candler believed that his product's name had to be descriptive, and that he must have at least some by-product of the coca leaf in the syrup (along with some kola) to protect his right to the name Coca-Cola. Protecting the name was critical. Candler had no patent on the syrup itself. Anyone could make an imitation. But no one could put the label "Coca-Cola" on an imitation so long as Candler owned the name. The name was the thing of real value, and the registered trademark was its only safeguard. Coca leaves had to stay in the syrup.
"How much cocaine was in that "mere trace" is difficult to determine, but a formula in the handwriting of Candler’s own chief assistant called for one quarter pound of coca leaves per gallon of syrup. This would provide roughly 8½ milligrams of cocaine per drink (about the equivalent of ½ of a 'line' of cocaine--20 to 25 milligrams, in the parlance of the modern drug trade). Though small, when combined with the caffeine content (caffeine is a cocaine synergist, much increasing its effect) the jolt was considerable. So drinking two to three glasses straight would have given the buzz of one line of cocaine. Much as Candler might protest that his drink was harmless, fit for children, invalids and nursing mothers, his company used 21,000 pounds of coca leaf per year at the turn of the century. Coca-Cola maintains that it's product was completely free of cocaine by 1929, but there was still a trace of the drug left in the drink by then:
"By Heath's calculation, the amount of ecgonine [an alkaloid in the coca leaf that could be synthesized to create cocaine] was infinitesimal: no more than one part in 50 million. In an entire year's supply of 25-odd million gallons of Coca-Cola syrup, Heath figured, there might be six-hundredths of an ounce of cocaine."
By the time it first became general knowledge that cocaine could be harmful, the backroom chemists with Coca-Cola at the time (long before it became the $110 Billion company we now know) did everything they could with available technology at the time to remove every trace of cocaine from the beverage. What was left behind (until the technology improved enough for virtually all to be removed) wasn't enough to give a fly a buzz.
But it wasn't the cocaine or caffeine that was the most objectionable ingredient--it was the wine.
(Click for larger Image)
There were compelling reasons for Pemeberton to so hotly pursue this latest of his tonic concoctions. Indeed, Hires Root Beer in (1876), Dr. Pepper (1885), and the famous--or infamous, as one's tastes dictate--Moxie (1884) had preceded his beverage with great success. But it was Atlanta and Fulton County's decision to go dry in 1885 that provided the local impetus for him to perfect his newest creation. Pemberton had been marketing French of Wine Coca, a knockoff of the highly successful Vin Mariani (above); no longer able to use wine as the base, he experimented to find another 'legal' base to mix with his coca preparation. The 'secret formula' (the mysterious 'Merchandise 7X') we associate with the taste of Coca-Cola were what he came up with to mask the otherwise acrid taste of coca and kola, planning from the outset to use soda water as the new base.
It seems that Dr. Pemberton's nephew, Lewis Newman, and John Turner, who apprenticed with Pemberton, remembered being sent down to the drugstore to get a drink of Coca-Cola for Pemberton, there being no other carbonated beverages at the laboratory that day. This tends to contradict Company dogma that Coca-Cola was 'accidentally' mixed with soda water about a year later. The plan from the outset, had always been to mix the syrup with carbonated water, yet the "accidental discovery" legend has been passed off as truth in more than a few prominent publications. As with most other facets of Coca-Cola Company's rich, colorful--and often infamous--history, revisionism abounds.
It was the prohibition law,enacted in Atlanta in 1886, that pressured Dr. Pemberton to rename and rewrite the formula for his popular nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy, "Pemberton's French Wine Coca," sold at that time by most, if not all, of the city's druggists. so when the new Coca-Cola debuted later that year--still possessing "the valuable tonic and nerve stimulant properties of the coca plant and cola nuts," sans wine--Pemberton advertised it not only as a "delicious, exhilarating, refreshing and invigorating" soda-fountain beverage but also as the ideal "temperance drink."
The resulting formula for Coca-Cola endured for almost 30 years. Before Dr. Pemberton's death, he'd sold most of his interest in the Coca-Cola formula and the Brand to two of his collaborators.
(Click for larger Image)
Asa Griggs Candler subsequently purchased the formula and Brand for between $1,750 and $2300, depending on which account you believe. Asa Candler, while primarily a gifted, highly successful, and very wealthy businessman, was also a staunch Methodist. While he continued to promote the Brand with visionary business acumen, the cocaine content of Coca-Cola increasingly troubled him. He wasn't alone . . .
The Temperance movement throughout both the U.S. and internationally, had approached fever pitch by the time of Prohibition. Coca-Cola chemists were experiencing greater success in reducing the cocaine content of Merchandise 7X, but it proved impractical to completely remove the coca leaf component in The Secret Formula, without destroying both the unique flavor of Merchandise 7X, not to mention the arguments continually put forward regarding the legal impracticality of removing the ingredient responsible for half of the 'Coca-Cola' Brand Name and patented formula. So it was, that between 1903 and 1929 Asa Candler and The Coca-Cola Company simply held it's corporate nose, reducing the coca leaf content to the absolute minimum necessary to preseve the unique taste of Merchandise 7X's flavor, while denaturing the level of cocaine in the resulting formula to almost impreceptible levels.
By 1929, it was Coca-Cola's official position that no cocaine remained in the original formula. Indeed, it's been Coca-Cola Company's revisionist history position throughout the Robert Woodruff years until the present day, that in fact Coca-Cola has never contained any cocaine whatsoever, borrowing a page from Joseph Goebbels, who first posited the theory that "the bigger the lie, the more believable it eventually becomes". As will be discussed in other sections of this feature, this was not the first time that Coca-Cola elected to simply brazen it out--and revise history, however it might have proven economically convenient.
Despite Coca-Cola's corporate fiction, the ability to denature the cocaine out of coca leaf became possible during the 1940's, and most scientific authorities maintain that if indeed coca leaf is still a component of Merchandise 7X, it's quite conceivable that any trace amount of cocaine contained within the product could practically represent as little as one part per 5 million at any level of the component's concentration within the product, while maintaining the flavoring component of the coca leaf itself.
Coca-Cola's 'Edsel'; The 'New Coke' of 1985
April 23, 1985--a day that will live in Coca-Cola infamy. This was the roll-out date of the first reported changed in Coca-Cola's Secret Formula in 82 years (by Coca-Cola's account). Coca-Cola called the product 'New Coke' and it was a colossal flop of epic proportions.
On a much more upbeat note, here's a fascinating 1951 showcase of Coca-Cola, mid-20th Century, entitled appropriately enough, 'Always Tomorrow':