An Interesting Beginning For Coke

By Kimberly Gonzalez
SNPJ Associate Editor

A friend’s Facebook post the other day caught my eye. He simply wrote “Coke > Pepsi” (“Coke is greater than Pepsi”). It was interesting to see the feedback he received, some choosing to “Like” it in agreement, while others fired back in protest. I’m not much of a pop drinker (or “soda drinker” for our non-Western Pa. readers), so I couldn’t fairly defend either side. Although my grandmother always had, and continues to have, at least a six pack of Pepsi in her fridge at all times, my mother has been a staunch Coke supporter, mostly of the diet variety. I can even recall hearing sighs of disappointment from both my mother and my grandmother when their brand of choice wasn’t offered at restaurants. The Coke vs. Pepsi argument is filled with dedicated consumers who are “pro” one brand and “anti” the other, much like the debates of Ford vs. Chevy, Nike vs. Reebok or Apple vs. Microsoft.

No matter your preference, every brand had to start somewhere. In fact, today marks the 128th anniversary of the Coca-Cola brand, which got its start on May 8, 1886. It just so happens that Coca-Cola’s beginnings are rather interesting, to say the least. It wasn’t the sweet, fizzy refreshment we’ve come to know and love, but it also didn’t include the controversial ingredient that many believe it did.

John Pemberton, inventor of Coca-Cola

In 1865, John Pemberton, a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, was wounded during the Battle of Columbus when a sword sliced him across the chest. Like many soldiers with battle wounds at that time, John eventually became addicted to the morphine he was given to ease his pain. As a pharmacist by trade, he was determined to develop an alternative form of pain relief that would be far less addictive. Pemberton began experimenting with coca and coca wines, and eventually developed a concoction similar to Vin Mariani, a tonic made of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,” as he called it, was marketed towards those battling depression, drug addiction and alcoholism, as well as those who were considered “high strung.”

When prohibition legislation was enacted in Georgia in 1886, Pemberton was forced to create a non-alcoholic recipe in order to continue sales. Through trial and error, and with help from friend and fellow druggist Willis Venable, John came up with a non-alcoholic version of his French wine coca that used carbonated water. In order to rebrand his product as a fountain drink, he needed a new name. Marketer Frank Mason Robinson came up with the name Coca-Cola, incorporating the drinks main ingredient (coca) and the alliteration sound that was popular among similar brand names of that time. It was later widely believed that the name derived from the product’s use of cocaine, but there is no evidence that Coca-Cola ever used cocaine as an ingredient.

Although a successful billion-dollar company today, the father of Coca-Cola died in 1888 at age 57, poor and battling an addiction to morphine – the exact reason he created the product in the first place. Much has changed since Coca-Cola’s early days; it certainly doesn’t include alcohol anymore and is no longer touted as a “valuable brain tonic.” But its name and the script of its logo have remained unchanged, making it one of the most recognized trademarks in the world.

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