Writing Out Loud:…and in other news…

George Stahl

Sit back and relax. Take a deep breath and sigh. I am going to tell you a story for the next few minutes. We are going to leave 2020 for a moment, and go all the way back to the year, 1886. We are in Atlanta, and are about to go into the local Jacob’s Pharmacy. We make our way to the back of the store, to the soda fountain and take a seat at the counter. A young man in a white shirt and pants, wearing a white soda jerk hat with red stripes, comes up to us and asks if he can help us. ‘I’ll have a Coke,’ I say. “Excuse me?” the kid replies. “A Coke, you know, the real thing.” I say. The kid thinks for a second. “Ohhh. Why didn’t you say so? You mean a Coca Cola?” “That’s it. Could you make that two?” you ask. “No problem.

Two Coca Cola’s coming right up.” We watch as the kid puts a glass under the fountain. He pulls on a lever, and a dark, syrup comes out, into the glass. He repeats that process and then brings us the drinks. “Here ya go gentlemen, two Coca Colas. That’ll be ten cents, please.” The kid says, looking past us, at the young lady who just came in, ringing the bell above the door. We look at each other, and we bring the glasses to our lips. We can smell the faint odor of cocaine, and pick up a sweet smell of sugar. “Oh man, if this is the real thing, I am soooo glad they changed the formula,” I said. The look on your face as you sip your Coke was enough to tell me, you were in my boat with me.

We stand up and turn around, as we are leaving, I reach back and throw a quarter on the counter. It wasn’t the kid’s fault that Coke started out as a thick, almost gooey sort of drink. Outside, we laugh at what just happened, and we return to 2020. “Where to?’ you ask. “Over there to that gas station. I’ll buy you a Coke.” “Deal.” Everything that happened back in 1886, was because a man named Dr. John Pemberton had an idea for a new soft drink. His innovative, top secret formula contained something that would get today’s parents pretty upset. In Pemberton’s process, when the leaves from the coca plant were washed for the drink, it wasn’t only the coca that went into the mix, but trace amounts of cocaine also fell in.

The refining method was eventually reworked in 1903 and the illegal drug was extracted, but for 7 years it was definitely the real thing…to a degree. Today is the 134th anniversary of the founding of one of, if not the most enduring, soft drinks of human history. Ok, that may be overstating the importance of a Coke, but the dating is true. Depending on where you do your research, some say that Coca Cola was originally intended to be a medicine, but most likely not. Pemberton simply set out to make a commercial worthy drink that would set him and his family up nicely for his retirement. He was 55 years old when Coke came on the scene, and in 1886’s standards, he’d already pushed past his prime.

Not too long after his drink was making its way around Atlanta, Pemberton sold his shares in the drink, retaining only a small part for himself. He tried letting his son take over the business before selling, but Charlie Pemberton wasn’t much interested, and he passed on the idea. So, Dr. Pemberton’s fountain drink was no longer a part of his life, and consequently, eventually, it is said that Dr. John S. Pemberton, creator of Coca Cola, died a pauper. There’s a happy thought the next time you pop open a Coke. After Pemberton sold, the new owners saw a wider market than the Atlanta area. They expanded their territory, and to their surprise and delight, there were a lot of people out there looking for the ‘real thing’.

The pop was a hit, and this called for more expansion. New labels on the advertising. For 8 years you could only get a Coke at a soda fountain. Then, in 1894, Coke came out in bottles and a whole new world was opened up for Coke in a six pack. But now, the owners were faced with a growing nation that for the most part never heard of their product. Advertising was even more important. Like in anything else, slogans were the key to grabbing the publics attention. No one would call it ‘the real thing’ until 1969, it was simply the drink that ‘revives and sustains’.

That slogan ran thru 1905, then others came along as the company grew and the nation went through changes. In 1944, it was simply. “How About a Coke?’ with a bottle being held by a Rosie the Riveter after a long, hot day on the docks. In 1971, Coke ran a campaign using a song, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, It’s the real thing…’ That was probably one of its most famous and best remembered. You’re probably humming it right now. It seems to be one of those songs that once you start remembering it, you find it hard to let go of. You’ve got sometime on your hands right now with COVID-19 out there, and you are in your house. Look it up, and remember the rest of the lyrics. In 1929 Coke was called, ‘The Pause That Refreshes’. We could all use one of those pauses right about now. Regular or diet?