Coca-Cola Was Originally Sold as an Intellectual Stimulant & Medicine: The Unlikely Story of the Iconic Soft Drink’s Invention

We all know that sweet­ened, car­bon­at­ed soft drinks have effects on those who drink them. The most con­spic­u­ous, among espe­cial­ly avid con­sumers, include obe­si­ty and its asso­ci­at­ed health trou­bles. This, fair to say, was not the inten­tion of John Stith Pem­ber­ton, the Geor­gia phar­ma­cist who in the 1880s came up with the drink that would become Coca-Cola. In that era, writes’s Kat Eschn­er, “peo­ple over­whelmed by indus­tri­al­iza­tion and urban­iza­tion as well as the holdover of the Civ­il War and oth­er social changes strug­gled to gain pur­chase, turn­ing to patent med­i­cines for cures that doc­tors could­n’t pro­vide.” And it was in a patent med­i­cine, one of the count­less many dubi­ous­ly bal­ly­hooed in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, that Coca-Cola first appeared.

Injured in the Civ­il War, Pem­ber­ton devel­oped a mor­phine addic­tion for which he fruit­less­ly sought treat­ment. But then he got word of a new sub­stance with the poten­tial to cure his “mor­phin­ism”: cocaine.  At the time, cocaine was an ingre­di­ent in a wine-based bev­er­age enjoyed by Parisians called Vin Mar­i­ani.

“It actu­al­ly made peo­ple feel great, and it was sold as med­i­cine,” writes Eschn­er. “Com­bin­ing cocaine and alco­hol pro­duces anoth­er chem­i­cal more potent than what’s nor­mal­ly found in cocaine, enhanc­ing the high.” Adapt­ing Vin Mar­i­ani for his own local mar­ket, Pem­ber­ton intro­duced what he called “French Wine Coca”: a treat­ment, as he pro­mot­ed it, for every­thing from dys­pep­sia to neuras­the­nia to con­sti­pa­tion, as well as a “most won­der­ful invig­o­ra­tor of the sex­u­al organs.”

Coca-Cola car­ries many asso­ci­a­tions today, few of them hav­ing to do with the life of the mind. Yet it was to upper-class intel­lec­tu­als, their minds dis­or­dered by the rapid devel­op­ment of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca, that Pem­ber­ton pro­mot­ed his inven­tion. It would be called “a valu­able Brain Ton­ic, and a cure for all ner­vous affec­tions.” Its sup­posed men­tal ben­e­fits became the main sell­ing point in 1886, when tem­per­ance laws in Atlanta prompt­ed a re-engi­neer­ing of the for­mu­la. Even the non-alco­holic ver­sion con­tained “the valu­able TONIC and NERVE STIMULANT prop­er­ties of the Coca plant and Cola nuts,” as adver­tise­ments put it, but in the ear­ly decades of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry (long after Pem­ber­ton’s death in 1888, by which time he’d sold off his rights to the drink), the Coca-Cola Com­pa­ny phased that ingre­di­ent out. If it weren’t ille­gal, a cocaine-for­ti­fied soft drink would now ben­e­fit from the retro appeal of the eight­ies — the eigh­teen-eight­ies and nine­teen-eight­ies alike.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Do You Drink Soda, Pop or Soft Drinks?: 122 Heatmaps Visu­al­ize How Peo­ple Talk in Amer­i­ca

“Soda/Pop/Coke,” A Cre­ative Visu­al Remix of Harvard’s Famous 2003 Sur­vey of Amer­i­can Dialects

The Muse­um of Fail­ure: A Liv­ing Shrine to New Coke, the Ford Edsel, Google Glass & Oth­er Epic Cor­po­rate Fails

“The Virtues of Cof­fee” Explained in 1690 Ad: The Cure for Lethar­gy, Scurvy, Drop­sy, Gout & More

The Birth of Espres­so: The Sto­ry Behind the Cof­fee Shots That Fuel Mod­ern Life

Dis­cov­er the Old­est Beer Recipe in His­to­ry From Ancient Sume­ria, 1800 B.C.

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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