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May 10, 2017

“Jinx! Buy me a Coke”: John Pemberton and the Origins of Coca-Cola

“The street cleared momentarily. Folding his paper under his arm, the elderly man crossed the street before another buggy bounced through the intersection. As he put his key into the lock at 107 Marietta Street, a young man briskly lifted his hat on his way by. ‘Good day, Dr. Pemberton. Hot enough for you, sir?’ The old gentleman nodded and smiled. Everyone in Atlanta knew and respected the kindly old patent medicine man, and most took one of his remedies for their cough, dyspepsia, headache, sexual debility, or whatever else ailed them.

As Pemberton entered his laboratory, he looked with satisfaction at his fresh supply of coca leaves, straight from Peru, and at the filtering system he had set up to produce coca extract. He was experimenting with a new concoction, one that he hoped would sell as a temperance drink and medicine, because the town was in hysteria over the evils of alcohol.”1

In a world of elixirs, potions, and artificially flavored concoctions, there is one beverage that has successfully managed to steal the hearts of billions and carve its rightful home into the lives of many the world over. This drink could cure any ailment and fix any problem, all while providing that extra good feeling after a long and stressful day at the office or at home. Made for people of all ages, this magic beverage had slowly started to gain in popularity, and before you knew it, this drink had become a household staple. Can you guess the name of this iconic beverage? If you guessed Coca-Cola, then you’ve guessed right. However, the drink that is recognized and loved today is not the same that it was when it had originally started. The history of Coca-Cola is a long one, full of secrets, lies, and ingredients that may shock even the most loyal of supporters.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Early Coca Cola Syrup and Extract Advertisement | Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Created in 1886 by an old Southern root doctor from Atlanta Georgia, John Pemberton, the famous Coca Cola drink has had a history of humble beginnings, being first created in a three-legged kettle in Pemberton’s backyard rather than in the hi-tech industrial factories that we recognize today. Wilbur Kurtz, the first person to ever try Coca-Cola, described the experience of that moment by stating that, “He leaned over the pot to smell the bouquet of his brew. Then he took a long wooden spoon and captured a little of the thick brown bubbling contents of the pot, allowing it to cool a moment. He lifted the spoon to his lips and tasted.”2 Surprisingly enough, the invention of this beverage was something of an accident; although John Pemberton put a lot of hard work and perseverance into the creation of Coca-Cola, finding the right taste was a stroke of luck when the syrup was accidentally mixed with carbonated water rather than plain water.3 Imagine! That extra kick signaled by the tingling sensation that occurs as the liquid flows down our throats was nothing but a simple mistake. Yet, it is one that we could not imagine having resulted otherwise. According to the reactions of Pemberton’s customers, it was proven that the beloved carbonated drink provided him with an assured influx of clients, having smacked their lips in satisfaction every time a new “pop” was made when opening a brand new Coca-Cola bottle.3 At least, this was the story the company tried to sell to its millions of fans all across America.

The history of Coca-Cola is paved with fabricated stories set up by the company as an advertising mechanism so as to sell more and more bottles of the product every day. The truth of the matter is that Cola-Cola was nothing but one of the many products marketed as a “patent medicine” with a distinct cocaine kick.5 While it remains true that Pemberton was the original creator of the Coca-Cola beverage, the story of him creating the iconic drink in his backyard is a great stretch from the truth. What may come as an even greater surprise is the notion that the first samples of Coca-Cola, in its stages as a medicine, were actually made with cocaine. New research sheds light on this approach by claiming that the recent discovery of once-classified documents by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics reveals that Peru was the largest producer of both coca and cocaine; and Coca-Cola, and its partner the Maywood Chemical Clinic of New Jersey, has had extensive relations with Peru predating 1903.6 By the 1950’s, Coca-Cola had tried to deny any allegations of the brand’s association with the usage of the Andean coca-leaf in its beverage, which it claimed to have de-cocainized its formulas since 1903.6 Nevertheless, this statement alone proves that Coca-Cola, whether or not it continues to use coca leaves in its mixtures up to this day, is guilty of having used cocaine in its mixtures over a seventeen-year period, from 1886 to 1903. For this reason, Coca-Cola is thought have had a high stake in US-Peruvian drug diplomacy. The recent discovery of a cryptic telegram from Lima dated from 16 February 1933 and addressed to the then chief attorney and vice-president of Coca-Cola, Harold Hirsch, states,”ACCORDING TO YOUR LETTER COCAINE BURNED TODAY AMERICAN CONSULATE PERUVIAN OFFICIAL MYSELF WRITING.” This document was later revealed to have been a secret project in which Peruvian coca leaves were burned in order to create an experimental extract called Merchandise No. 5, a de-cocainized version necessary for creating the beverage.8 As interest began to grow in the company’s “secret formula,” Asa Candler, the then president of the ever-expanding Coca Cola company, had to find a way to deal with the public’s fear of cocaine and he effectively did so by eliminating all traces of the drug from the drink by the early 1900’s. Interestingly enough, it was stated that the company had to receive a special exemption from the United States’ anticocaine legislation for the importation of “de-cocainized coca leaves or preparations made therefrom.”9 Why would a company who claims to have rid itself of any traces of cocaine need a special permit to continue importing specially formulized leaves into the United States? Apparently, Coca-Cola had the responsibility of obtaining the right to import the “special leaves” for its partner company, the Maywood Chemical Works. The Maywood Chemical Works was a company primarily associated with the importation of special leaves from Peru that were later discovered to have been specifically reserved for coca leaf extract in beverages. During that time this company was the only legal purchaser of these special coca leaves from Peru, and it was no coincidence that the Coca-Cola company happened to be its partner company and primary customer. While the truth of Coca-Cola’s continued usage of cocaine via coca leaves still remains a topic of debate, the traces left behind serve as evidence that there were instances of relations between the company and the product.

Replica of 1899 Coke Bottles | Photo by Brent Moore | Courtesy of Flickr

Another revealing fact lending itself to the usage of cocaine in the beloved carbonated beverage is in the name of Coca-Cola itself. By the mid 1900’s, the name Coca-Cola was seen as being synonymous with the term “dope,” a word previously found to mean any “preparation of mixture or drug, especially one that is harmful.”10 In addition to this, a quotation from Printer’s Ink, a California-based magazine focused on American trade, revealed that by the year 1915, Americans were already getting used to calling Coca-Cola, their favorite drink, by the terms ‘dope’ or ‘coke’ or ‘koke.’ Clearly, Americans were, to a certain extent, aware of the potential contents of their beverages; even more so that they went so far as to create nicknames for it. To continue with this new period in coke history, a quote from an Erskine Caldwell novel in 1931 stated, “Everybody likes Coca-Cola. There is nothing better to drink on a hot day, if the dopes are cold.”11 By this time, not only were Americans familiar with the term dope, but the popularity of its relation with the Coca-Cola brand was so strong that it had managed to carve its way into various corners of society, such as literature. Additionally, the use of the word dope in American slang mostly circulated in the Southeastern region of the United States, more specifically the areas of Georgia, North and South Carolina, as well as Virginia, which were, to no surprise, the areas in which most drugstores and soda shops were commonly referred to as ‘dope shops’ by the general public.12 Since the reach of Coca-Cola was strongest in the South, it was natural for the term dope to catch on fairly quickly in those areas.

However, what remains to be true about the world-renowned brand is the fact that it was originally invented in the years following the American Civil War as well as the fact that it was first sold at drugstore fountains and promoted as a drink to cure various ailments. And, while the soft drinks that were first marketed as medicines did in fact contain questionable ingredients, they have changed quite extensively over the years, while maintaining their unique brand names through their respective transformations. Additionally, when Pemberton first created the Coca-Cola drink in 1886, he wished to create a beverage that would help alleviate not only his own medical ailments but also those of his customers.13

Although Coca-Cola has denied any claims of continuing the usage of coca leaves in their iconic beverage, the question as to whether or not there are still traces of cocaine in the beverage still remain a mystery. The history of the brand is, without a doubt, a very long one, filled with many secrets and suspicious actions. Their history of the use of cocaine in Coca-Cola helps to provide an insight as to the company’s continued usage of it in their product. However, one thing still remains true up to this day; a freshly opened bottle of Coca-Cola still possesses the power to put a smile on the face of anyone who is daring enough to take a sip of this dangerously delicious drink.

  1. Mark Pendergast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 5.
  2. Mark Pendergast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 6.
  3. Mark Pendergast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 7.
  4. Mark Pendergast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 7.
  5. Mark Pendergast, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (New York: Basic Books, 2013), 8.
  6. Paul Gotenberg, “Secret Ingredients: The Politics of Coca in US-Peruvian Relations, 1915-65,” Journal Of Latin American Studies 36, no. 2 (May 2004): 234.
  7. Paul Gotenberg, “Secret Ingredients: The Politics of Coca in US-Peruvian Relations, 1915-65,” Journal Of Latin American Studies 36, no. 2 (May 2004): 234.
  8. Christopher W. Wells, “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism,” Business History Review, no. 1 (2016): 235.
  9. Christopher W. Wells, “Citizen Coke: The Making of Coca-Cola Capitalism,” Business History Review, no. 1 (2016): 116-118.
  10. James W. Tuttleton and Louise M. Ackerman, “Coca-Cola and Dope: An Etymology,” American Speech, 1963, 153.
  11. Ernest Caldwell, American Earth (California: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1931), 21.
  12. James W. Tuttleton and Louise M. Ackerman, “Coca-Cola and Dope: An Etymology,” American Speech, 1963, 154.
  13. Gale Group, “When there was really coke in Coca-Cola! (Snake Oil!),” Skeptic 9, no. 3 (2002): 99.

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Nahim Rancharan

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Recent Comments


  • Kimberly Rivera

    As someone who lives in a Coca-Cola loving household, I would have never guessed that the drink I grew up loving was made by a simple accident. I also would have never thought that at one point of its creation it used to be a medical drink that contained cocaine and over time became the most popular and sensational drink.

  • Maria Luevano

    I am not surprised that the carbonated water is what made the drink so special. As an active Coca-Cola drinker, I look forward to that first sip of carbonated water with its unique flavoring. Even today without cocaine, the drink is highly addictive due to the sugar, caffeine, and carbonation. I actually knew that cocaine was an original ingredient, as my grandfather used to work for a Coca-Cola factory in Mexico. Cocacola has truly made a name for itself and will continue to be in our lives.

  • Maria Ferrer

    This is a very well-written and interesting article. It is hard to believe that one of the most important and consumed beverages was, in fact, a simple mistake. I would never have thought that Coca-Cola was accused of using cocaine in its mixtures, this was quite surprising to read. Hundreds of millions of people have been consuming this drink for a very long time and what was even more surprising to read in this article was that the drink was originally thought to be a cure for different ailments. Overall, I love that this article talked about an accident that later turned out to be a great success.

  • Ariel Howell

    I never knew that about coke , that is why I love it some much . I knew that you can use coke to clean around the house with, that is why I stoped drinking coke . Because it is really bad for your teeth, and dark soda can clean the rust off of things around your house.

  • Christopher McClinton

    The article was very interesting to me I had a feeling that Coca-Cola was laced with traces of cocaine. To think how just creating something that was an accident became a very popular beverage on a world wide. The history of Coca Cola is not far from the truth. This had to be a product that was constantly used during the Civil War. However, I still believe that the secret ingredient is still being used.

  • Victoria Salazar

    Fascinating article. I had no idea that the word dope used to be used to refer to Coca-Cola nor why coke has become the nickname for it. Also, the pop heard when opening a can of Coca-Cola explains why some people refer to it as soda-pop. I think this is definitely an interesting take on a linguistics article.

  • Malleigh Ebel

    This article was very mysterious and really peaked my interest! I didn’t realize how slang has changed surrounding Coca Cola especially dope. I never new soda shops were known as dope stores surrounding this drink in Southeastern region of the United States. I find it interesting how language and slang evolves around new products like Coca Cola did as this article shows.

  • Pedro Lugo Borges

    Before reading this article i had no idea that the word dope i used to be known as another word for soda and that there was a guess addicted like following of it i also didn’t know that the so called secret formula is de cocainefied cola leaves founded by the peruvian government. I didn’t stop to question the origin story of the coca cola company but it’s interesting to see the level of sugar coating that when on there. its funny to think that a medicine slowly turned into a addiction in some cases it was also interesting to think about the origins of the carbonated beverages.

  • Eric Hernandez

    Reading this article, I thought the Coca-Cola story was a bit far fetched. To a certain extant, I think this information might be true but I also think that most of the information might just be to make Coca-Cola look bad or for a publicity stunt. I don’t think Coca-Cola or anyone for that matter would send out a product containing Cocaine, to it’s consumers. I can possibly see a test run or something of that sort though.

  • Antonio Coffee

    I had heard that Coca-cola at one time had used cocaine as an ingredient in their drink and that it was one of the main reasons the people were drawn to the drink. What I didn’t know is that the drink had been made on accident and that they had never even planned on using carbonated water. I also didn’t realize how much work was put into ensuring that few people knew of its history and that people were so quick to tie using cocaine to the drink itself going so far as to call soda shops, dope shops.

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