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The Confederacy & Coca-Cola

Dr. John Stith Pemberton statue at World of Coca-Cola In Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. John Stith Pemberton statue at World of Coca-Cola In Atlanta, Georgia
Michael Climo at World of Coca-Cola In Atlanta, Georgia

Most everyone recognizes the soft drink Coca-Cola as one of the most prominent brands known today. But, did you know that the discovery of Coca-Cola was made by a former Confederate soldier and was unintentional? Initially it was formulated as a tonic to cure almost everything. But today Dr. John Stith Pemberton’s creation has since become one of world's most iconic and profitable brands.

John Stith Pemberton was born on January 8, 1831 in the small town of Knoxville, Georgia near Macon. At an early age his family moved to Rome where he was raised and attended school. His father, James Clifford Pemberton, was a native of North Carolina. His Uncle, Confederate General John Clifford Pemberton, is best known as the man who surrendered Vicksburg to the Union. Around the middle of 1840 John Pemberton returned to Macon and enrolled at the Reform Medical College of Georgia. He took courses in pharmacy and medicine and was trained as a steam doctor. This was a popular system devised by doctor and herbalist Samuel Thomson. The procedure relied on herbal treatments and steam baths that was believed would help patients rid themselves of disease by sweating. In 1850 at the age of 19 Pemberton received his degree. Later he acquired a more conventional pharmacy degree but the exact date and place are unknown.

In the early 1850s Pemberton launched a medical and surgical career in Rome. In 1853 he married Ann Eliza Clifford Lewis, a student at Macon's Wesleyan College, and the pair moved to Columbus, Georgia. The following year their son Charles was born. Pemberton was always looking for greater financial opportunities than those of an average small-city pharmacist. In 1855 he established a wholesale-retail business selling the raw materials for pharmaceutical remedies sold in apothecary shops and less formal retail environments like medicine shows across the South.

After the outbreak of the War Between the States, Pemberton enlisted in the Confederate Army and in May of 1862 was made a first lieutenant. He organized the Third Georgia Cavalry Battalion for the defense of Columbus and reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. Pemberton’s unit was in the line of fire when Union troops under General James Wilson attacked Columbus on Easter Sunday of 1865. Although there was an encounter later at Palmitto Ranch, Texas, and fighting even later in Alabama, the attack on Columbus, Georgia was the last large-scale battle of the war. Pemberton received a saber slash across his chest during the struggle for the 14th Street Bridge. Like many other wounded veterans, he became addicted to the morphine that was used for a pain-killer.

After the War's end and his recovery Pemberton returned home and formed a partnership with wealthy Columbus physician Austin Walker. He expanded his laboratory with the aim of devising new products and selling medicines and photography supplies. He branched out into cosmetics and found success with a perfume called Sweet Southern Bouquet. In 1869 Pemberton partnered with larger investors in Atlanta and formed the firm of Pemberton, Wilson, Taylor and Company. In 1870 he moved with his family to Atlanta and began to make a name for himself in the growing city's medical establishment, serving as a trustee of Atlanta Medical College (Now known as Emory University Medical School). Pemberton's labs were state-of-the-art and they remain in use today as a soil and crop chemical testing facility for the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

Among the successful products Pemberton launched in Atlanta in 1885 was a drink he called Pemberton's French Wine Coca. The product contained coca leaves from South America which were precursors to cocaine. Pemberton promoted the drink, which was served at pharmacy counters, as a nerve tonic, a mental aid, a headache remedy, and a cure for morphine addiction. When interviewed by an Atlanta newspaper he admitted that the concoction was based on an Italian-French product, Vin Mariani, that contained a similar wine-coca mixture. Pemberton's innovation though was to add extracts from other tropical plants like the caffeine containing kola nut produced by a genus of African trees and Damiana, a Central American shrub leaf reputed to have aphrodisiac properties.

In 1866 alcohol prohibition plans began to circulate within Atlanta's city government (it was eventually implemented but lasted only one year). Pemberton was worried that his newly popular product might soon be banned so he embarked onto more experimentation. Using a laboratory at his home on Marietta Street in Atlanta, Pemberton's French Wine Coca began to evolve into Coca-Cola. He devised an industrial sized mixing and filtering apparatus that ran from the house's second story through the floor to the ground level. Samples of his new alcohol free syrups were sent out to local pharmacies for testing with Pemberton's nephews assigned to report on customer reactions. One key breakthrough occurred when Pemberton came up with the idea to add citric acid to counteract the sweetness of the sugar based syrup.

By May of 1886 Pemberton was ready with his final formula and it was first sold in syrup form at Atlanta's Jacob Pharmacy. In the beginning it was served at the counter mixed with water to create a beverage that retailed for five cents. A pharmacy clerk who’s’ name is lost to history made a brilliant enhancement when he had the idea to use soda water in place of the normal plain water. The new Pemberton Chemical Company was formed to market his new drink and he put his son Charles in charge of production. One of his partners in the new business was the bookkeeper named Frank Robinson. He also came up with the name Coca-Cola referring to the drink's two active ingredients and created the antique script logo still in use today.

Total Coca-Cola sales for the first year of operations were only $50, a failure in Pemberton's view because he had spent $70 on supplies. But Robinson believed that exposure was all that was needed and persuaded Pemberton to devote a significant marketing budget to help popularize the new concoction. He agreed and banners, streetcar placards, and store awnings emblazoned with the message “Drink Coca-Cola” could be found all around Atlanta. Soon the product was spreading across the city and Pemberton was convinced it was on its way to national popularity.

Pemberton however did not live to reap the profits from his invention. Suffering from stomach cancer he progressively sold off two-thirds of his interest in the company to other investors, including the transplanted Northern pharmacist Asa G. Candler. In the last months of his life he dragged himself to his laboratory repeatedly in search of further improvements to the Coca-Cola formula convinced that celery extract was the key to a still more attractive taste. Pemberton died on August 16, 1888 leaving his wife in a difficult financial situation.

A struggle for control of Coca-Cola soon followed his death. The financial maneuverings that occurred were murky with rights to both the name Coca-Cola and the formula for the drink under dispute. Candler now sought to move swiftly forward to taking full control of the whole Coca-Cola operation. It has never been entirely clear how Candler wrested control of the company from Charles Pemberton and the other investors. Eventually, Charles Pemberton was found on June 23, 1894, unconscious, with a stick of opium by his side. Ten days later, Charley died at Atlanta's Grady Hospital at the age of 40.

In Charles Howard Candler's 1950 book about his father, he stated: "On August 30th {1888}, he {Asa Candler} became sole proprietor of Cola-Cola, a fact which was stated on letterheads, invoice blanks and advertising copy." With this action on August 30, 1888, Candler's sole control became technically all true. By May 1, 1889, Candler was now claiming full ownership of the Coca-Cola beverage, with a total investment outlay by Candler for the drink enterprise over the years amounting to $2,300.

The first bottling of Coca-Cola occurred in Vicksburg, Mississippi at the Biedenharn Candy Company in 1891. Its proprietor was Joseph A. Biedenharn. The original bottles Biedenharn bottles were very different from the much later hobble-skirt design now so familiar. Asa Candler was tentative at first about bottling the drink but two entrepreneurs from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead, proposed the idea and were so persuasive that Candler signed a contract giving them control of the procedure for only one dollar. Candler never collected his dollar, but in 1899, Chattanooga became the site of the first Coca-Cola bottling company. In 1905 fresh coca leaves were replaced by spent coca leaves, the part of the plant left over after cocaine is extracted and by the 1930s the drink was a fixture of American life.

By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1936 the soft drink had reached the status of a national icon in the USA. On July 12, 1944 the one-billionth gallon of Coca-Cola syrup was manufactured by The Coca-Cola Company. As Paul Harvey used to say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”