Thanks to Joseph Priestley first discovering a way to artificially impregnate water with fixed gas in 1767, the soda went on to become an American institution with Coca-Cola it’s champion.  But well before Coke, effervescent waters were a luxury commodity highly regarded for their healing qualities reminiscent of thermal spas and springs.

Early advert for Pemberton's tonic. The Anderson Intelligencer, March 11, 1886 – courtesy of Library of Congress Archives

Early advert for Pemberton’s tonic. The Anderson Intelligencer, March 11, 1886 – courtesy of Library of Congress Archives

Beginning its reign in 1885, the refreshing Coke we know and love today began as a tonic closer resembling a vermouth than a soda pop. Branded a French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic the recipe and products was patented to a wounded Civil War vet by the name of Colonel John Pemberton. Initially created as a means to compete with another French wine coca tonic called Vin Mariani, Pemberton went one step further by adding bitter, caffeinated Kola nuts from West Africa. Despite Vin Mariani’s endorsement by three popes, two presidents, Thomas Edison (the light bulb guy) and even Queen Victoria, it would be Pemberton’s tonic and not Mariani’s which would evolve into a super brand. A brand so successful today, it sells 1.8 billion servings every day. A brand which is sold in every country throughout the world except Cuba and North Korea – and those only due to trade embargoes with the US.

Cokes first step away from an alcoholic tonic and into soda pop came about not by choice but by legislative circumstance. In 1886, Pemberton’s home city of Atlanta, Georgia passed a short lived prohibition law criminalising alcohol causing him to re-examine his secret formula. After making the necessary adjustments the product was relaunched the same year, with new business associate Frank Robinson, as a non-alcoholic tonic. Robinson made his impact on the brand early; devising the new name Coca-Cola believing “the two Cs would look well in advertising”. Promoted as a medicinal remedy to everything from morphine addiction, neurasthenia, headaches, impotence and dyspepsia – the origin of the name of their later rival Pepsi – customers could buy Coca-Cola at dispensing chemists throughout Georgia for a fixed price of 5 cents. The same year would see Coca-Cola’s very first advertisement in the Atlanta Journal, May 29th stating;

“Coca-Cola. Delicious! Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating! The new and popular soda fountain drink containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nut”.

Early Coca-Cola advert showing the companies first model Hilda Clark, c. 1890's

Early Coca-Cola advert showing the companies first model Hilda Clark, c. 1890’s

While it may have been a refreshing and somewhat exhilarating non-alcoholic tonic, it was still sold to dispensing chemists under the guise of a curative tonic for the next half a century. The syrup bottles sold into chemists for dispensing at in store soda fountains arrived with labels further boasting its abilities as a nerve stimulant and brain tonic while also a curative for headaches, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy and other such ‘nervous affections’. Unfortunately, all the miracle qualities of Coca-Cola were not enough to save Pemberton from dying of stomach cancer in 1888, just two years after its creation.

Despite Pemberton passing away early, the brand was already on the path to becoming a national success. After some competition over ownership rights between the name and formula, the company was finally consolidated by a Mr Asa Candler who managed to purchase the secret formula from Pemberton prior to his death. In 1890, Candler recorded annual sales of 8,855 gallons of Coca-Cola and thanks to his aggressive marketing strategy, continued to drive the brand to success; only retiring as Company President when elected as Mayor of Atlanta city in 1917. From then on, Coca-Cola was on the path to glory led by the newly invested Woodruff family who for the next six decades would help spread the brand to all corners of the globe.

Today Coca-Cola is quite simply a behemoth. So popular is the brand that after the word “okay”, “Coca Cola” is the second most widely understood term in the world. To help put that into perspective, here is a few additional facts from a 2011 company brochure:

  • If all the Coca‑Cola ever produced were to cascade down Niagara Falls at its normal rate of 1.6 million gallons per second, it would flow for nearly 83 hours.

  • Coke makes so many different beverages that if you drank one per day, it would take you over 9 years to try them all.

  • If the world supply of Coke was distributed only in the common 8 ounce bottle, each person on earth, of all ages, would receive 1,104 bottles each.

  • Coca-Cola’s USD$35.1 billion in annual revenue makes it the 84th largest economy in the world, just ahead of Costa Rica.

As with any brand so globally recognisable as Coke, it doesn’t come without its fair share of hearsay and rumour. So let’s put some of those to bed.


Depiction of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. First published in Harper's Weekly, 1863

Depiction of Santa Claus by Thomas Nast. First published in Harper’s Weekly, 1863

Up until the 1930’s, winter sales of Coca-Cola were always down when compared to the warmer months of the year. As such the company attempted to find a link between their brand and Christmas using a number of different images of jolly Santa as their muse but with little success. In 1931, Coca-Cola employed portrait artist Haddon Sundblom whose work for the next 33 years would revolutionise the modern image of Santa Claus. But Sundblom was not the first to cast Santa in this modern-day impression. The American depiction of an old, fat, bearded, red and white Santa with fur-lined hat, black belt and black boots was originally depicted by political cartoonist Thomas Nast as early as 1892. While Nast sometimes depicted Santa in green, the traditional red of a Bishops robe was usually preferred due to its association with Santa’s real life namesake, Saint Nicholas of Myra (4th century AD). Today, more traditional European nations such as The Netherlands and Austria still represent Saint Nic at Christmas complete with his red robe and bishops mitre.

Playboy Christmas edition, drawn by Haddon Sundblom, 1972

Playboy Christmas edition, drawn by Haddon Sundblom, 1972

As for Sundblom, his images were inspired by both a combination of Nast’s drawings and the popular 1823 Christmas poem A Visit From St. Nicholas in which the author Clement Clark Moore would describe “He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot…His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow…He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”.

While Sundblom will always be remembered for his role in defining the modern interpretation of Santa, he also made a handsome career out of painting adverts for most of the Fortune 500 brands of the time, as well as a leading reputation in drawing pinup models. His final freelance project in 1972 saw him depict his last Santa; only this time it was a front cover exclusive for Playboy Magazine.


Coca-Cola brass watch fob, 1925

Coca-Cola brass watch fob, 1925

In 1925, the Coca-Cola Company commissioned a brass watch fob in the shape of a Swastika emblazoned with the company logo and the message to drink Coca-Cola in bottles for 5 cents. This may sound shocking today but at the time the Swastika was still a symbol of good luck derived from Buddhist origins and would not become a symbol of evil until the Nazi Party rose to power with Hitler’s ascension to Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, Coca-Cola had been operating a production plant inside Germany for a decade. When America entered the arena in 1941, Company Director Robert Woodruff offered all servicemen a subsidy of paying only 5 cents for a bottle of coke. While attempting to drive patriotism behind the brand, the tactic also ensured the company was exempt from wartime sugar rationing and could therefore continue production as normal. The Coca-Cola employees who were conscripted into the army became vital in helping to install the 64 military bottling plants and distributing the 10 billion drinks required to stock the various US bases and fleet throughout the war. As such these company conscripts or Coca-Cola Colonels as they became known were granted Technical Observer status, equal to that of qualified military technicians, and never saw front line action. A sweet posting by more than one definition. So well associated with the US troops was coke that the name Coca-Cola even became the password to identify American troops when crossing the Rhine during Operation Plunder in the final stages of the war.

Coke advert during World War II, 1945

Coke advert during World War II, 1945

And the Americans were not the only one’s who appreciated the taste of an ice-cold Coke. According to Emperors of Coca-Cola by Murray J. Eldred, German troops discovered a case of Coke left by retreating Allied forces while fighting in North Africa. With great value as contraband, some bottles were acquired by Luftwaffe BF109 fighter pilots who devised an ingenious means of chilling the drink in the hot African sun. Bottles would be wrapped in wet towels before being affixed to the underwings of their planes. Upon returning from flying, where the pilots had sweated profusely under the perspex canopy of their cockpits, they would remove the bottles of coke which had chilled at high altitudes and retained temperature due to the moist towels evaporating in the drag of the wings.  – a rudimentary refrigeration technique. A true example of Coca-Colas 1939 advertising slogan, “Whoever you are, whatever you do, wherever you may be, when you think of refreshment, think of ice-cold Coca-Cola”.

Shell loading at a large Midwest ordnance plant,1943 c/o Library of Congress Archives

Shell loading at a large Midwest ordnance plant,1943 – courtesy of Library of Congress Archives

Not only a soft drinks company, Coca-Cola briefly diversified into weapons manufacture investing and operating a propellant ammunition loading plant in Talladega, Alabama in support of the war effort. Operating under the subsidiary Brecon Loading Company, an average of 30 railroad cars of ammunition were reputedly produced from their Coosa River Ordnance Plant a day until closure in August, 1945.

Despite their seemingly unfailing support of Americans at war, what was not known to the average GI was the continual operation of the German Coca-Cola plant throughout the conflict. Adding refreshment and a much needed financial boost to the enemy economy, the existence of this factory has been used over the years to attack the Coca-Cola Company and their questionable support of the Allied war effort. The truth is that even though prior to the war Coca-Cola had hosted various Nazi party sporting events and supplied Coke throughout Nazi Germany, all direct ties between the Coca-Cola Company and this factory ceased with the outbreak of the war and with it, so did the manufacture and sale of Coca-Cola in Germany. But the factory did not stop trading.

Old German Fanta advert – property of Presse Portal, Germany

Old German Fanta advert – property of Presse Portal, Germany

With the Coca-Cola syrup no longer imported into Germany due to wartime trade embargoes, Germany’s new Coca-Cola factory director Max Keith gathered his creative managers together to develop a new product from ingredients available outside of war rationing – or the “leftovers of leftovers” as later quoted by Keith. Finally creating a product made from a combination of fruit, pomace and whey the team branded it in the spirit of the imagination which went into its creation – Fanta, from the German fantasie. Reputedly resembling something closer to modern day ginger ale, Keith and his team continued to produce Fanta throughout the war where is was used for more than just common refreshment. Tighter rationing saw many people using it to flavor soups or sweeten stews in place of luxury items such as sugar and spices. Despite being cut off from their American owners during some of the most tumultuous years in modern European history, at no point did Keith or his company succumb to pressure to join the Nazi party. By the end of the war, Max Keith reputedly relinquished the company back to their American owners as well as representing all profits made from the sale of Fanta throughout the war. With a market already established, Coca-Cola relaunched Fanta as an orange drink and the rest as they say is history.

Marshal Zhukov [right] and General. Eisenhower about to drink a toast (not Coke), June 1945

Marshal Zhukov [right] and General. Eisenhower about to drink a toast (not Coke), June 1945

Coca-Cola even managed to win the tastes of high placed Russians during the Cold War which followed the end of the Second World War. General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov – a Russian hero of WWII and staunch opposer of Stalin, befriended US General Dwight D. Eisenhower during their mutual occupation of Berlin and was thus introduced to Coca-Cola. Taking a liking to it but knowing he couldn’t be seen associating so closely with a western icon, Eisenhower collaborate with Coca-Cola to produce a one off colourless soda with the same flavour especially for him. They sealed it in a round bottle with a white cap and labelled it with a red star to represent that of a standard bottle of Russian vodka. True to their advertising slogan at the time;

“Where there’s Coke there’s hospitality”.

[For further reading see – Coca-Cola Revealed: Part 2 – Fellatio, Poisoning and Astronauts]