Which popular soft drink was invented by pharmacist John Pemberton and first introduced in 1886?

And the answer: Coca-Cola.
Photo credit: Billy Hathorn.

While working at his drug store in Georgia, John Pemberton registered an alcoholic beverage "nerve tonic" in 1885 that he called "Pemberton’s French Wine Coca." The recipe included the African kola nut, which provided the drink with caffeine. In 1886, local prohibition laws were passed, and Pemberton responded by creating a non-alcoholic version marketed as "Coca-Cola: the temperance drink."

Although we know Coca-Cola—or, simply, Coke—as one of the largest beverage corporations in the world today, it only earned $50 in the first year of its existence. That’s right—founder Pemberton actually struggled to find a market for his bitter beverage, and was forced to sell it before passing away, never to see its rewards. But everything changed when Asa Candler, the next owner of the Coca-Cola franchise, got his hands on the company name.

Beginning with his acquisition of the company in 1891, one of Candler’s first objectives was to simply put the Coca-Cola brand on everything—and anything. Candler was the first to recognize the potential of mass advertising in the United States, and spent around $100,000 of his own money placing their label on calendars, pocket mirrors, murals on the sides of barns, and much more. Ultimately, it paid off. With effortless brand recognition (and plenty of promotional “free drink” vouchers for an ice cold glass at their local pharmacy), Coca-Cola began to take off as an American staple.

For the first couple of decades of its existence, Coke was only sold from soda fountains in pharmacies. Unlike the pharmacies we visit for medicine, snacks, or toiletries today, pharmacies in the late 19th and early 20th century were meeting grounds and social spaces for kids and adults to converge, eat, and drink. Behind the pharmacy’s counter, Coca-Cola syrup was added to carbonated water and made special for each glass. It wasn’t until much later—and through a whole lot of trial and error—that Coke began to be sold in bottled glasses. In fact, Coca-Cola was the first to achieve a sanitary practice of bottling in the United States, setting a precedent for decades to come.

Did you know?

Yesterday was National Pharmacist Day! Interestingly, the soda fountain was “born” in the 1850’s, when people would seek fountain drinks from their local drugstore to cure physical ailments. Today, pharmacies offer prescription medicine as well as over-the-counter treatments. Learn more about National Pharmacist Day here.


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