Pemberton’s Legacy


It’s the real thing baby! At least it was for the first 44 years of its life. That’s when all the world realized that they had been duped into becoming addicts to a gateway drug that actually had a patent, and was distributed as a Victorian era tonic and barely reputable medication extoling a cure for a hangover as well as a hiccup remedy. Hangover and Hiccups were being eradicated throughout Post Civil War America courtesy of a pharmacist named John Pemberton from Atlanta Georgia.

1886, the nation is lamenting over a war fought on American soil, claiming nearly 800,000 American lives called the American Civil War. At the same time people were stunned at the first assassination of a U.S. president, the devastations brought on by brother against brother, the façade of the abolishment of slavery and the equality of all men created under God.  But in all of this, as in all tragedy according to Greek lore, a comedy was to rise from the ashes in the form of a Phoenix and that savior was called, Coca Cola!  John Pemberton invented a medicine he claimed could cure all the ails that ailed you. An elixir that would take your problems away and wash the sins of the war into a clean and manageable refreshing time of victory in your mind. Originally, on May 8, in 1886 a patent was granted to Pemberton to use his product strictly as a medicine, and nothing more. For the time being, Pemberton was satisfied with that, and he began to reshape, reformat, and rebrand his concoction. That status Coca Cola held for the next 41 years. John Pemberton never saw any of what his invention was to become. He sold his formula for $2,300 a year after he invented it to Asa Candler. Pemberton died a few years after that, but Asa went on to form the Coca Cola Company and continue with Pemberton’s dream.

There is a myth or rumor going around that the first batches of Coke contained cocaine. Spoiler alert! They did! Actually, what would become a beloved soda pop, then medicinal elixir and hiccup cure contained anywhere from heavy amounts of cocaine from the beginning until in 1930 they were all but eradicated from the soft drink. Probably a good thing since cocaine was made illegal 16 years earlier.  Fortunately, because of the patent, in the 1880’s thru the era of Prohibition and into the Great Depression, the bottles were peddled, or sold, as bonafide medicines. So, they did not come under any of the illegal categories of drugs or alcohol at the time. Inspired by Pemberton, Asa had found a way to get his healing cocaine ladened medicine around the illicit and banned concoctions of the time and was able to make a pretty good living at it. In the times of prohibition and gangsters like Al Capone, Dutch Shults and George Moran, Asa simply skated cases of his intoxicating and addicting brain stimulator as he called it, to the public under the noses of both the lawmen and the badmen. Pemberton’s booze incognito was a huge success. They simply saw that he was bringing healing relief to the down trodden, and uplifting hope to the poor. The instructions simply read to use Coca Cola as needed, and usually even under doctor’s orders. 

As time went on and Asa’s business was growing, he spread out in to the world of soda fountains and ice cream saloons. Coca Cola was reparented as a soft drink. Asa then felt the need to step back. Take what he made, sell the rights to Coca Cola and move on. He sold all his rights including the secret formula that was Coca Cola’s success and went on an extended holiday somewhere in the world. 

As the Great Depression swept across America, people were not so interested in soda pop. Until, Christmas of 1930, and an iconic character was reinvented and Coca Cola took credit. The Depression was all anyone could talk about. Rightly so. People were out of work, families were being torn apart, and suicides and murders were on the increase. Coca Cola to the rescue! Sort of. The marketing department was tasked with creating something new that would help people in their desperation and at the same time bring them to Coca Cola. There may not have been anymore cocaine in the drink, but there was plenty of heart. Coca Cola joined forces with none other than Santa Claus. A new, rejuvenated, friendlier, happy, contagiously loving old fat man in a red suit, black boots and a thick black belt. His rosy cheeks, and belly laugh echoed as he held up a bottle of Coca Cola and smiled. The soft drink was at the top of everyone’s Christmas list from that day forward.

Yes, it started as the real thing, and to this day it is touted as still the real thing. The company would like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony with a Coke in one hand and a smile on their faces.  So, grab a bottle and sit back and relax anytime during a busy day, on quiet Sunday afternoon, or at a ball game because as they said about Coke back in 1929, ‘It is the pause that refreshes.’ Ahhhhhhhh!