May 8 1886 – Coca Cola Sold for the First Time


In 1886, the United States was a confusing place. The New World was running away from the Old World. While Industrialization and urbanization created completely different lives for Americans, what had forgotten to keep pace was medicine. So, people suffered from ailments brought on by war, living in cities, and working in factories, but treatments were decidedly 18th century. This left the field wide open for hucksters and charlatans.

Enter the patent medicine boom. No western movie is complete without a snake oil salesman pitching the cure all benefits of their liniment. These were often pitched as medical panaceas, fixing everything from hemorrhoids to massive depression. The ingredients were often exotic and had names that vexed the mouth. 

Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops would cure your chest or lungs, Magician John Hamlin’s Wizard Oil promised ‘There is no Sore it will Not Heal, No Pain it will not Subdue.’ And Daffy’s Elixir would cure you of all your stomach ails. Though many of the patent medicines were made from harmless ingredients that would also do no good, many used a variety of liquors and elicit drugs. Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops wouldn’t fix your chest but it was made of opium, so you didn’t care. No wonder John Hamlin’s Wizard Oil subdued your pains because it was made up of 60-70% alcohol including ammonia and chloroform. The marketing genius here is that you can’t feel any pain if you are blacked out on your bathroom floor. And Daffy’s Elixir would cure your stomach pain until you sobered up from the brandy in it.

The mother of them all was Vin Mariani (French: Mariani wine). This was a coca wine created in the 1860s by Angelo Mariani, a French chemist. Mariani saw the economic potential from adding coca to booze and selling it as medicine. The ethanol in the wine acts as a solvent and extracts the cocaine from the coca leaves. It originally contained 6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine but Vin Mariani that was to be exported contained 7.2 mg per ounce in order to compete with the higher cocaine content of similar drinks in the United States. Advertisements for Vin Mariani claimed (almost certainly accurately) that it would restore health, strength, energy and vitality. Which might be the exact nouns one might use to explain the effects of taking cocaine while drinking before they ran off to do some jumping jacks and hit the bathroom again. Not surprisingly, It was ridiculously popular. Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, the Pope, and the Rabbi all adored it, teaming up some very random people. 

Also a fan of Vin Mariani was John Pemberton, an Atlanta-based doctor and Civil War veteran who had a personal (and not economic) reason for searching for a new effective medicine. He’d been slashed across the chest by a saber in the last battle of the Civil War and had been hooked on morphine since. He was looking for a way to cure his pain without narcotics. In 1885 and likely inspired by Mariani, Colonel Pemberton came up with a concoction called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca nerve tonic. It used roughly the same ingredients (alcohol and cocaine) to create roughly the same result (absolute euphoria). He was a genius.

However, in 1886, America’s latest cause got in the way. The growing temperance movement had been gaining steam since the Civil War, when men tried to escape the horrors of war by getting blotto. Women were at the forefront of the movement, and perhaps it’s not altogether surprising that they weren’t allowed in bars. Fulton County – where Pemberton’s shop was located – went dry. This didn’t stop Pemberton, it just changed his plans a little. He kept the cocaine, which was fine, because it was evil alcohol that everyone had a problem with, and to make up for its loss, he added a whole lot of sugar and caffeine. Pemberton called this concoction called Coca Cola and he marketed it as Coca Cola: The Temperance Drink.

Among the upper class white people Coca Cola became known as an intellectual beverage, what with the cocaine, the caffeine, and the sugar propelling their good ideas as if someone had attached a jet turbo engine to their cranium. But in 1899 when Coca Cola began being bottled a terrible thing happened – black people could get it. Before then, Coca Cola was available in soda fountains which were segregated. So blacks had no access to it. After it was bottled, they could drink it and instead of turning them into intellectuals, it turned them into the sex-starved rapists of white women. ‘Negro cocaine fiends’ were reported to be wreaking havoc all over the south. In 1903, Asa Griggs Chandler, Coca Cola’s manager, took out the cocaine and added more sugar and caffeine.

If anyone in Fulton County had known what an additive Coca Cola: The Temperance Drink would become to booze they would have been scandalized. Today we drink what you want but it has to include Coca Cola. Jack and Coke, Rum and Coke, Beam and Coke. Drink to John Pemberton, drink to patent medicines, and drink to the long lost culture of reckless attitudes towards drugs. But please, leave out the cocaine.     

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