Today is Have a Coke Day. The first glass was sold for five cents at Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, GA, on May 8, 1886. The story of one of the most popular beverages on Earth began at the end of the American Civil War.
Confederate officer and Freemason John Stith Pemberton was slashed across the chest by a Union soldier’s saber and treated with morphine, to which he became addicted. When he returned after the war to his job as a druggist, he became obsessed with finding a substitute.
In 1885, he formulated French Coca Wine, using coca leaves and caffeine-rich kola nuts. When the mixture of cocaine and alcohol was ingested, it created a third substance called cocaethylene which heightened the euphoria experienced from the use of cocaine alone.
Pemberton didn’t invent the drink himself; he used the two-year-old formula of a Parisian chemist named Angelo Mariani, whose Vin Mariani was so beloved that he was awarded a gold medal by Pope Leo XIII.
Pemberton marketed his version as a nerve tonic ideal for “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion” as well as “a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs” and a cure for morphine addiction.
When early prohibition laws were passed in Atlanta, he removed the alcohol and developed Coca-Cola as a patent medicine to be mixed at pharmacy soda fountains, which were popular because of the belief that carbonated water was good for health.
Not long after Coca-Cola’s debut, Pemberton became ill. Ironically, he was nearly bankrupt due to the high cost of his ongoing morphine addiction; as a result, he began to sell the rights to his formula but tried to retain a share of ownership to pass on to his son, Charles. But his son wanted the money instead so they sold what was left to business partner Asa Candler.
John Pemberton died of stomach cancer on August 16, 1888, at age 57. Charles attempted to sell and popularize an alternative to his father’s formula but died six years later, an opium addict himself.