By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2011-2012, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2012 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
Raise a glass of the bubbly to toast the bubbly. Not champagne, but America’s beverage: Coca-Cola, which was invented and first sold in 1886. After all, isn’t it always a good time to toast “the real thing”? Another good reason to toast Coca-Cola is because there are some connections between Coca-Cola and the Civil War.
One of those connections is the inventor of Coca-Cola, John Pemberton. No, not that John Pemberton, the other John Pemberton. Coca-Cola was not invented by John C. (for Clifford) Pemberton, the Confederate general who led the army that defended Vicksburg against Ulysses S. Grant and his army. Coca-Cola was invented by John S. (for Stith) Pemberton. This Pemberton also served in the Confederate army, and John S. Pemberton was the nephew of John C. Pemberton. It may be that if Unionists know that Coke was invented by a Confederate, they will be motivated to drink Pepsi. Nonetheless, it is easier to understand why John S. Pemberton served with the Confederacy than why his uncle did. At least John S. Pemberton was a Southerner, but John C. Pemberton was a Northerner who served with the Confederacy.
John S. Pemberton was born in Knoxville, Georgia on July 8, 1831. When Pemberton was a young child, his family moved to Rome, Georgia, where he grew up. He was educated in medicine and pharmacy, and in 1850, when he was 19, he was licensed to practice a type of medicine that was based on herbal remedies. Pemberton and his wife moved to Columbus, Georgia in 1855, where Pemberton established a drug business and practiced as a druggist. In 1862 Pemberton enlisted in the Confederate army as a first lieutenant and organized a cavalry unit which operated primarily in the protection of the locale around Columbus. He was almost killed in April 1865 during fighting around Columbus. Had he died, his death prior to inventing Coca-Cola most likely would have had a future beneficial effect on sales of Pepsi-Cola.
After the Civil War, Pemberton returned to his profession in pharmacy and to the analytical and manufacturing company that he had founded in 1860. His laboratories were considered state of the art. For example, Pemberton developed a laboratory for the testing of soil and crop chemicals, and this facility still operates as part of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. But Pemberton’s obsession was to invent a tonic for use in the home, since such concoctions were in high demand at that time. Initially he developed Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which was a plagiarism of Vin Mariani. Vin Mariani was developed by French chemist Angelo Mariani and was in essence coca leaves extracted in wine. The ethanol in the wine extracted the cocaine from the coca leaves, and the user consumed a mixture of alcohol and cocaine. The popularity of Vin Mariani even extended to the Vatican, where Pope Leo XIII reputedly consumed Vin Mariani “to fortify himself in those moments when prayer was insufficient.” Pemberton acknowledged that Mariani’s recipe was likewise his formulation and indicated that his formulation also included an extract of kola nuts.
In 1869 Pemberton moved his company from Columbus to Atlanta. This move was instrumental in the invention of Coca-Cola, because Atlanta introduced prohibition in 1886. As a result, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca became illegal, not because of the cocaine, but because of the alcohol. Since he could no longer sell his French Wine Coca, Pemberton set about developing a new concoction that lacked alcohol. After numerous attempts that were either too bitter or too sweet, Pemberton arrived at a formulation that met his satisfaction. In May 1886 he sent a batch to Jacobs’ Pharmacy where Willis Venable, who manned the soda fountain, added carbonated water to the syrup and served it to some customers, who pronounced it excellent. It is an urban legend that the addition of carbonated water was an accident. From the beginning the plan was to mix the syrup with cold carbonated water to make the concoction more flavorful. The syrup was sent to the soda fountain because there was no carbonated water in Pemberton’s laboratory. Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, suggested the name Coca-Cola to reflect the two main ingredients in the concoction: coca leaves and kola nuts. Robinson also designed the eminently familiar flowing script logo. Eventually the beverage was sold in soda fountains across the U.S. In the summer of 1894 Coca-Cola was first bottled by Joe Biedenharn in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the city that John C. Pemberton was unable to defend against Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War.
The year after his invention of Coca-Cola, John S. Pemberton was forced to sell two-thirds interest in his company. Later that year he sold his formula to druggist Asa Candler for $2,300, although the conditions by which Candler obtained controlling interest are murky. It was Candler who oversaw the explosion in popularity of the beverage, and when Candler sold the company in 1919 it was valued at $25 million. Pemberton died on August 16, 1888, having never benefitted from the immense profits that accrued from the sale of his invention. At the time of his death, he was immensely loved and respected in Atlanta, but he was also broke. Pemberton’s only child, son Charles, died in 1893 at the age of 34 of a morphine overdose. Despite the vast fortunes that were made from Pemberton’s invention, his wife, Ann, died a pauper in 1909. The great tragedy of Coca-Cola is that its inventor and his family never shared in the enormous wealth that that invention generated.
Of the two Pembertons, John C. and John S., John C. is definitely more widely known, particularly among Civil War enthusiasts. But John C. Pemberton’s most well-known legacy is one of the most devastating defeats in the cause that he fought for. In contrast, although John S. Pemberton’s life certainly took a tragic turn, his greatest legacy is an achievement of undeniably historic proportions. Through relentless perseverance and focused ingenuity, he brought into existence the invention that he sought to create. John S. Pemberton’s legacy exists throughout the world, but few people realize that it is his legacy. While his place in history is assured, his place in history is hardly known. So raise a glass of the bubbly to John S. Pemberton, the Pemberton who succeeded in his task.