Coke is it: the best-known commercial product in human history. Uh huh! It’s the real thing. And – for the first 15 years of its life – it contained the real thing.
Its formula, with the zealously guarded secret ingredient 7X, its birth as a cocaine-laden temperance drink and early days as a “brain food” and tamer of “physically exhausting terrors,” its current ingredients (stimulants, gas and corn syrup): all are clouded by the company’s sunny, purposely misleading histories.
Another slogan, “Always Coca-Cola,” points perhaps to a deeper truth. When the Great Wall of China has decayed into gravel, when the Khamsin winds have worn the pyramids to dust, when the seas have risen and swallowed Manhattan, Coca-Cola may still remain. Drunk like mother’s milk in every country in the world, only surpassed by “OK” as a universally-recognized utterance, Coca-Cola has a good shot at immortality. But like other eternals, its birth is obscured in mystery, contradiction, and flat-out lies.
The Coca-Cola Company has been in denial for decades. The product may be the most perfectly American substance, both trivial (99 percent colored sugar water) and profound (liquid essence of American culture). But it did not merely contain cocaine – its conception and early acceptance were due largely to the cocaine content. Its creator was no aw-shucks country druggist who stumbled onto the pause that refreshes. He methodically concocted Coca-Cola as an imitation of Vin Mariani, the hugely profitable coca wine that dominated European tastes for 30 years.
Angelo Mariani, the world’s first cocaine millionaire, hobnobbed with monarchs, doctors, intellectuals, and spiritual leaders. With his drooping eyelids, frizzled white beard, broad dome-like skull, sporting a cravat and posed in a dignified stance, he presented himself as an aristocrat of commerce. And Coca-Cola’s inventor, well aware of Mariani’s success, wanted to achieve the same in America.
A Corsican from a long line of doctors and chemists, Mariani took an early interest in the coca plant. He moved to Paris in 1863 and opened the business that would make him hugely wealthy. At this time there was some debate stirring about the healthfulness of coca and its alkaloid, cocaine. So before releasing his brain-child to the world, Mariani did extensive research, poring over travelers’ reports and scientific studies, and personally testing countless coca samples. A lifelong devotee of the plant, he became expert in its mind altering properties and developed a thorough knowledge of the aromatic qualities of the numerous varieties. At the height of his fame and wealth he had vast greenhouses where thousands of coca plants bloomed.
Though they contained the highest yield of cocaine, the most bitter leaves were rejected by Mariani, as they were by the Indians of Peru. Palatability was very important. Mariani discovered that the most agreeable way of delivering cocaine’s kick was steeping the leaves in Bordeaux wine. Thus Vin Mariani was borne. With a potent product and aggressive advertising, he was soon selling huge quantities, eventually becoming the biggest importer of coca leaves in the world.
He kept the ingredients of the wine a secret. But we can make an informed guess about the cocaine content in Vin Mariani. A chemist in 1886 reported that it contained .12 grains per fluid ounce. Since the recommended dosage on the label was a “claret-glass full,” before and after every meal, we can assume that 18 ounces of wine were taken each day, containing 2.16 grains of cocaine. This was certainly enough to, as the ads proclaimed, chase away fatigue, banish aches and pains, and make the user feel very very good.
At first, Mariani’s intent was to produce a medical tonic. And it was received as such by doctors – 8,000 of them giving their written endorsement. Charles Fauvell, a throat specialist, requested that Mariani create a coca preparation for local anesthesia. The cordial became the rage of Parisian singers whose vocal cords were “overtaxed.” French music teachers encouraged their students to drink coca wine in rehearsal and before performance. At the height of the craze, thousands of opera singers – amateurs as well as divas such as Sarah Bernhardt – were quaffing Vin Mariani to improve their performance.
One of the innumerable ads from the period claimed that the coca drink “nourishes, refreshes, aids digestion, strengthens the system” and was “unequaled as a tonic-stimulant for fatigue and overweak body and brain.” Another ad showed a baby with a bottle of Vin Mariani. He looks happy, healthy, eager to take another suck at the nippled flask. The caption reads, “Here’s the best feeding bottle.”
Besides the constant barrage of ads, celebrity endorsements aided sales considerably. Mariani compiled a thirteen-volume journal of commendations, many with a paragraph or two of fulsome praise for his wine. Kings (Albert of Monaco, Peter of Serbia, Alfonso of Spain), Queen Victoria, the Tzar of Russia, the Prince of Wales, and the Shah of Persia all sent their warm and heartfelt thanks for Mariani’s invigorating creation. Writers such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Ibsen, Dumas, Rostand, and Zola also extolled the virtues of coca wine. Two presidents of France and the United States’ President Grant contributed accolades. Musicians, artists, and even the American paragon, the Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison, sent etchings and words of gratitude. Edison, who claimed to need little sleep, argued that humans would eventually get free of the “sleep habit.” He sent a photograph and thanks to Mariani for contributing to his stamina and “clearheadedness.”
Two Popes (Pius X and Leo XIII) went on public record as long-time devotees of Vin Mariani. Leo, in fact, was so enamored of coca that he had a gold medal struck bearing his “venerable image” and sent it to Mariani as a sign of his approval. His Holiness included a personal note saying that he “had been supported in his ascetic retirement by a flask of wine which was never empty.” Mariani claimed that his wine extended the user’s lifespan, and in the case of Pope Leo, this may be true. Though frail, emaciated as a desert anchorite, he lived to age 93. A biographer mentioned that Leo’s face was “of alabaster whiteness” and his eyes were “radiant with the fire of piety and fatherly kindness.” It’s possible, however, that the fire in his eyes had a less-than-spiritual source.
Though intended originally as a medicine, by the time its offspring Coca-Cola was invented (1886), the wine was no longer just for sick folks. Anyone who desired a quick pick-me-up, a jolt of mental clarity, a shot in the arm or a glint in the eye, could find it in a pleasant glass of wine. Emboldened by success, Mariani moved into other product lines: lozenges, effusions, teas, and even a coca paté.
Flush with profit, he ordained that a number of architectural monuments to coca be raised. At Neuilly, he built a laboratory and production plant which also included a conservatory and vast salon. The zenith of frenzied fin de siècle decor, it was crusted with elaborate flourishes in glass and wrought iron, all bearing the image of the coca plant. Art nouveau designs echoed the image everywhere in the coca palace. Leather models of the plant were on display. Rugs and curtains with the coca motif abounded. Chairs and divans with carved wooden coca leaves greeted the visitor. From floor tiles to ceiling moldings, the coca leaf was conspicuous. A friend of Mariani’s summed up his obsession with the plant this way: “coca is the hobby of Mariani. It is his recreation, his relaxation, and his constant source of pleasure.”
This success, not surprisingly, spurred imitation. Capitalizing on the maxim, “things go better with Coke,” Park Davis marketed a cigarette that combined the kick of nicotine and cocaine. The pharmaceutical company also sold an alcoholic coca cordial, cocaine sprays, unguents, pills, and hypodermic injections. Numerous cocaine-laden products hit the market: powders, coca cheroots, tablets, eyedrops, enemas, and a coca chew to replace the nasty tobacco habit. Most common though were the direct imitations of Vin Mariani: Delicious Dopeless Noca-cola, Kola Ade, Café Coca, Dr. Don’s Cola, Pillsbury’s Coke Extract, Inca Cola, Kos-Kola, Kumfort’s Coke Extract, Rococola, and Coca-bola. Always a stickler, Mariani insisted that his products be made with only pure coca leaf, unlike many imitators, who merely spiked cheap wine with pharmaceutical cocaine.
The most significant imitator was John Styth Pemberton. His French Wine Coca was moderately profitable; its successor rather more so. Though Coca-Cola has promoted its uniqueness through such slogans as “There’s nothing like Coke,” and “The only thing like Coca-Cola is Coca-Cola itself,” in fact the beverage was merely one of hundreds of Vin Mariani knock-offs. The company’s authorized histories painted John Pemberton as a rustic root wizard who happened on Coca-Cola by dumb luck. The tale of him cooking up his first batch in a crude, three-legged kettle is also a sentimental lie.
Indeed, Pemberton was well educated for his time: at first as a Thomsonian botanical doctor and later receiving formal training in pharmacy. He created and marketed a number of proprietary medicines before moving on to temperance drinks: Globe Flower Cough Syrup, the “blood purifier” extract of stillingia, a rheumatic tonic called Prescription47-11, Gingerine, and Triplex Liver Pills. He was no bumpkin with a backyard cauldron and a head full of superstitious lore. At the peak of his success, his laboratory was one of the largest and most elaborate in his native state of Georgia. Though depicted in the later Coca-Cola illustrations as a scraggly-bearded hick, earlier images show him confident, solid, and successful. Moving to Atlanta in 1869, Pemberton owned one of the most lucrative pharmacies in the city.
A few years later he read an article that changed his life, and the course of American popular culture. This was a report on the use of coca leaf by South American Indians. Soon Pemberton was furiously at work, brewing up his French Wine Coca. Like Mariani, Pemberton at first targeted the cerebral elite as most likely to benefit from this “intellectual beverage.” He proclaimed that “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion are the most liberal patrons of this great invigorator of the brain.”
Besides the power of cocaine, his new miracle elixir delivered the effects of the “pure grape” and the African kola nut (which has a higher caffeine yield than very strong coffee).
French Wine Coca was, according to Pemberton, “the greatest blessing to the human family.” It could cure anyone “afflicted with nervous trouble, dyspepsia, mental and physical exhaustion, all chronic and wasting diseases, gastric irritability, constipation, sick headache, or neuralgia.”
Coca had long been associated with erotic stimulation. Even Sigmund Freud, not known as a great romantic or lover, was swept up in coca’s sexiness. He wrote to his fiancée: “woe to you, my Princess, when I come. I will kiss till you blush . . . and if you resist, you’ll find out who is stronger, a tender little girl . . . or a big rugged man with cocaine in his veins.” Pemberton too saw coca in these terms, describing his wine as a “wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs.”
Early ads for Coca-Cola emphasized the sexual associations. One from 1907 shows a lingerie-clad young lovely lying on a tiger-skin divan, fairly glowing with erotic gratification. The caption reads “Satisfied.” Nudes, sultry Southern wenches, flappers, sophisticated ladies, and bathing beauties all flirted for Coca-Cola, promising “exhilaration” and “real satisfaction.”
It’s not clear whether Pemberton benefited from the erotic power of his product. But he did have first-hand experience with the morphine habit, for which French Wine Coca was touted as a “great blessing.” When he began injecting morphine is not known. But it’s probable that, like thousands of other soldiers wounded in the Civil War, he first used morphine on the battlefield. And returning to civilian life as a pharmacist he had easy access to the drug. Though he claimed that French Wine Coca could cure those dependent on morphine and opium, the evidence indicates that he used the drug until his death in 1888. Not surprisingly, the Coca-Cola Company does not mention that its inventor was a needle junkie for most of his adult life.
His coca wine was successful, but he knew its days were numbered. It wasn’t the cocaine content that doomed the wine, but the alcohol it contained. Prohibition loomed over the South. Georgia, and more particularly Atlanta, were heading toward a total ban on beer, liquor, and wine.
Reformulating an alcohol-free drink, Pemberton experimented with a variety of fruit flavors. He didn’t consider removing the alkaloids present in the coca leaves however. Pemberton spent the winter of 1886 through the following spring working on the new temperance drink. The final, supposedly top-secret, formula for Coca-Cola contained lime juice, vanilla, sugar, fluid extract of coca, and the oils of orange, lemon, nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander, and neroli (derived from orange blossoms).
The name, whose derivation is so obvious, has been the subject of much hand-waving and smoke blowing by the company spokesmen. Claiming that Coca-Cola is a “meaningless but fanciful alliterative name,” the company continues the century-long tradition of self-induced amnesia.
Pemberton’s first Coca-Cola ad ran in the Atlanta Journal on May 29, 1886. The drink, available at first only at soda fountains, sold well. A month later, Atlanta went dry, the first large city in the U. S. to ban alcohol.
Though Pemberton continued to sell French Wine Coca and his new drinks – Phospho Lemonade and Phospho Ironade – Coca-Cola was soon his chief moneymaker. However, a combination of bad luck (two major factory fires), bad judgment, opiate dependence, and legal wranglings left Pemberton nearly broke at the end of his life. His son committed suicide and his widow died a pauper. Through a bewildering tangle of lawsuits and financial machinations, ownership of Coca-Cola finally came to another druggist: Asa Candler. After spending a grand total of $2,300, he claimed sole ownership of the product in 1889.
Without Pemberton, Coca-Cola would never have been born; without Candler, it would never have made the transition from cocainous fizz-water to the essence of wholesomeness, decency, and the American way of life. It was Candler who saw the enormous potential in the drink and who began the hundred-year advertising campaign that broke through every cultural barrier; flourishing in Nazi Germany and behind the Iron Curtain, penetrating the most remote jungles and deserts of the world.
Like a number of successful businessmen at the turn of the century, Candler saw the pursuit of wealth in religious terms. Brought up by fulminating fundamentalist parents, he would – his son reported – get so spiritually intoxicated at revival meetings that he’d “become physically ill.” Stricken with religious hysteria, “his eyes would shine, his body became tense, and his whole being pulsed with exhilaration.” Christianity and Coca-Cola became intermixed in Candler’s fevered mind. His son remarked that Chandler had “an almost mystical faith” in Coca-Cola. Meetings for his staff had all the marks of a Pentecostalist tent revival: preaching, song, exhortation, confession, testimonial. The gospel Candler preached was that of wealth. And his faith was well placed: Coca-Cola made him a millionaire many times over.
In 1889, he sold 2,171 gallons of Coca-Cola syrup. Two years later, soda fountains used 10 times that amount. By 1895, Candler moved more than 75,000 gallons. Using 1 ounce of syrup for each glass sold, this amounts to almost five million drinks of Coca-Cola. By this point, Candler had branch factories in Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Two years later the Philadelphia and New York plants opened. Advertisements blanketed the country. As World War I began, Coca-Cola had more than five million square feet of painted wall signs.
However, the specter of the “dope fiend” loomed over Candler’s empire. Salesmen reported rumors of Coca-Cola leading to “cocaine addiction.” Newspapers questioned its healthfulness. “What’s in Coca-Cola?” the Atlanta Constitution headlines inquired. “A popular drink that is said to foster the cocaine habit.”
The nickname Coke (and Koke) was quickly becoming common, and the term “dope” was used frequently in soda fountains to mean Coca-Cola. Often long-time users called for a “shot in the arm” to request Candler’s “pure and wholesome” beverage.
When salesmen asked why the Coke couldn’t be taken out, Candler exploded. “Never! There is nothing wrong with Coca-Cola, the most healthful drink the world has ever seen.”
The actual cocaine content of the drink has been debated for years. But a formula in the handwriting of Candler’s chief assistant called for one quarter pound of coca leaves per gallon of syrup. This would provide roughly 8½ milligrams of cocaine per drink. Though small, when combined with the caffeine content (caffeine is a cocaine synergist, much increasing its effect) the kick was considerable. A standard street dose of cocaine is 20 to 30 mg. So drinking three glasses straight would have given the jolt of one line of cocaine. Much as Candler might protest that his drink was harmless, fit for children, invalids, and nursing mothers, his company used 21,000 pounds of coca leaf per year as the 20th century opened.
It’s commonly assumed that the coke was taken out of Coke at the instigation of the federal government. However, well before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, and the purity campaigns of Dr. Harvey Wiley, the leaf used in making Coca-Cola had already been decocainized. The famous U. S. Versus 40 Barrels and 20 kegs of Coca-Cola is often cited as the case which took the kick out of Coke. Wiley, head of the U. S. Bureau of Chemistry, did mount a long and passionate attack on Coca-Cola, which he portrayed as dangerous and deceitful. But the main thrust of this assault was on the secret nature of the drink. His Pure Food Act and the 40 Barrels case were more about making the contents known than removing poisons or “addictive substances.” (Keep in mind that heroin was still legal in the U. S. until 1914.) By the time the case was finally settled, Coca-Cola’s ad campaign had reconfigured the drink as the “pause that refreshes,” a homey familiar presence more associated with Norman Rockwell’s sentimentalized America and jolly red-faced Santas than sufferers from “brain fog” or “nervous exhaustion.”
So, when was the real thing removed from “The Real Thing”?
One crucial factor was the switch from soda fountain Coke to the bottled form. With their elaborate decor, “temples resplendent in crystal, marble, and silver,” soda fountains were the precinct of urban whites. Once Coke was transportable, it reached the poor and black folk. Some plantation owners provided actual cocaine to their workers. More often, rural Southerners – both black and white – found the exhilarating jolt of Coke helpful to endure their long grueling hours of field labor.
As the new century turned, Coca-Cola had become quite a hit with the black population of the South. Soon, the threat of sexually predatory “Negro coke fiends” appeared in rumor and newspaper stories. As with heroin “addicts,” cocaine users were stereotyped as lower class, uneducated and racially menacing. Hysterical accounts of black “brutes” molesting white women, “sepia centaurs with bulging eyes,” “colored Casanovas and dusky Don Juans” fueled by coke did much to change the public opinion toward the drug.
At the turn of the century, a cocaine high was cheaper than that from the liquor bottle. A New York Tribune article warned that “in Atlanta cocaine sniffing has grown to such proportions that some of the keepers of saloons patronized by colored people are going out of business.” The reporter added that Coca-Cola had “similar effects to cocaine, morphine and such like.” In 1901, the Atlanta Constitution claimed that “the use of the drug among Negroes is growing to an alarming extent. It is stated that quite a number of soft drinks dispensed at soda fountains contained cocaine, and that these drinks serve to unconsciously cultivate the habit.”
In a defensive move, Candler published a pamphlet called “What Is It? Coca-Cola. What It Is,” in which he claimed that the essence of the coca leaf “makes one active, brilliant, vigorous, and able to accomplish great tasks easily.” That same year (1901) however, he engaged the Schafer Alkaloid Company of New Jersey to decocainize the coca leaf he used.
Still, he couldn’t very easily announce to the world that his beverage – “Full of vim, vigor and go!” – was now drug-free. To admit that would be to admit that cocaine was harmful. Also, Candler didn’t want to lose customers who were used to Coca-Cola’s kick.
Instead, he instituted a revisionist history: Coke never contained cocaine, he asserted many times under oath. Almost a century later, the company continues to deny the obvious and irrefutable.
Using what has been called the longest-standing and most extensive ad campaign in history, the company has reshaped the public notion of its product. Though sexy Coca-Cola girls said “yes!” to proffered brown phallic bottles, they were innocent, pure, naïve; not temptresses, but recipients of admiring gazes. Though movie stars, sports heroes, and even U. S. presidents were drafted into the campaign, still Coca-Cola was sold as the drink of the people. Though it provided a caffeine and sugar buzz, “classic” Coke’s popularity does not depend so much on a biochemical effect as on its nearly universal presence. Coke is no longer a real thing; it is image, perception, symbol. Consider caffeine-free, diet Coke: when you drink this nutritionally null and nearly flavorless brown water you are imbibing a representative of Coke, a liquid shadow.
When we see the Coca-Cola script-logo we certainly do not think of glassy-eyed “black brutes” tearing the clothes off of white women. Still, in most Americans’ minds the ghost of cocaine lingers over Coca-Cola. The name makes this patently obvious, no matter how convoluted the company’s explanations may get. On some level, for most users of the product, as one of the slogans proclaimed, “Coca-Cola is Coke!”
Atlanta Constitution. “Cocaine Sold Illegally.” November 20, 1901, p. 5.
Atlanta Journal. “A Wonderful Medicine.” March 10, 1885.
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