Caleb Bradham the Founder of Pepsi

CALEB BRADHAM THE FOUNDER OF PEPSI

© History Oasis

Caleb Bradham lived a remarkable life that intertwined small town business success with explosive entrepreneurial ambition, military service, and personal resilience in the face of adversity.

Bradham grew up in rural North Carolina in the late 1800s, was trained as a pharmacist and invented the iconic Pepsi-Cola soft drink.

BRADHAM WAS TRAINED IN MEDICINE & IN THE MILITARY

Caleb Bradham as a medical student
© History Oasis

He was born Caleb Davis Bradham on May 27, 1867 in the small town of Chinquapin, North Carolina to parents George Washington Bradham and Julia McCann Bradham.

After completing preparatory studies, Bradham attended the esteemed University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As a student, he was an active member of the Philanthropic Society and graduated with merits. He later pursued advanced medical studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but did not complete his training.

After returning home, Bradham opened a small drug store called the “Bradham Drug Company” in downtown New Bern, North Carolina in 1890.

The store featured the town’s first soda fountain. It was here in 1893 that Bradham invented a new soda recipe he named “Brad’s Drink” that later came to be known around the world as “Pepsi-Cola.”

In addition to entrepreneurship, Bradham had a strong sense of civic responsibility and loyalty to the country.

He served the local community as bank president and chairman of the Craven County Board of Commissioners.

For a quarter century beginning in 1899, Bradham held successive ranks as officer in the North Carolina Naval Militia reserves, gaining promotion to rear admiral by the end of his distinguished military tenure.

He provided valuable guidance on maritime defense policy at the federal level as well.

CALEB BRADHAM INVENTED PEPSI

What the first bottle of Pepsi-Cola looked like
© History Oasis

While operating his humble drug store on Middle Street in downtown New Bern, Caleb Bradham steadily tended to the soda fountain—a popular town gathering place in the 1890s.

Behind the counter in 1893, he pioneered a new flavored soda recipe.

Drawing on his training in pharmacology, Bradham tested exotic combinations of kola nut extract, rare oils, vanilla, and other natural ingredients. His tinkering resulted in a sweet, carbonated drink he dubbed “Brad’s Drink.”

It was an instant success with customers. The tasty beverage was not only delicious and refreshing, but reputed to have digestive health benefits as well.

Bradham had visions of sharing his soda elixir with the world.

Just five years later in 1898, Caleb Bradham astutely rechristened his soda creation “Pepsi-Cola” and began bottling operations.

Though merely a small town druggist, he had unwittingly invented what would become one of the most famous and beloved soda brands across the globe over the next century.

Bradham's ingenious drink recipe created during a routine workday amidst the shelves of his humble drug store ultimately launched a multibillion dollar beverage empire thanks to his visionary entrepreneurship.

HE IS CREDITED WITH GROWING PEPSI-COLA IN ITS EARLY YEARS

Caleb Bradham as a successful businessman
© History Oasis

After enjoying great local success, Caleb Bradham had grander aspirations for his signature soda recipe.

In 1898, five years after first concocting “Brad’s Drink,” he gave his creation a new name with hopes to appeal to a national market: “Pepsi-Cola.”

The rebranding was a strategic masterstroke, evoking the drink’s digestion-aiding properties by utilizing the root term “pepsin” coupled with the popular “cola” nomenclature.

Wasting no time to capitalize on early momentum, Bradham incorporated the “Pepsi-Cola Company” in North Carolina December 24, 1902 to spur wider distribution and sales.

The prescient businessman then obtained a trademark for Pepsi-Cola on June 16, 1903 to protect his proprietary formula as the company grew.

Franchises were doled to bottlers in key markets, allowing Caleb Bradham’s once local soda shop novelty to rapidly expand across state lines.

Though still early days, the newly christened Pepsi-Cola was positioned through shrewd branding and infrastructure moves to soon become a nationally beloved beverage.

HE HAD TO DECLARE BANKRUPTCY DUE TO HIGH SUGAR PRICES

expensive sugar
© History Oasis

In the aftermath of World War I, Caleb Bradham and the booming Pepsi cola company were blindsided by economic volatility.

Sugar, a key ingredient in Pepsi’s top-secret syrup recipe, dramatically spiked to over 28 cents per pound - nearly ten times higher than just a few years prior.

Bradham had amassed abundant sugar reserves before the war at lower prices expecting rampant postwar demand for Pepsi.

But his gambit failed when sugar prices unexpectedly plunged soon after he stockpiled the commodity.

With no way to recoup massive losses on surplus sugar stores that now vastly exceeded market rates, the Pepsi-Cola company’s finances were pushed to the brink.

Despite achieving coast-to-coast success and brand awareness, the sugar commodity crisis delivered an irrecoverable hit.

On May 31, 1923, Caleb Bradham made the reluctant decision to declare bankruptcy and shutter the once high-flying Pepsi-Cola corporation.

Though his company collapsed, the enduring popularity of Pepsi-Cola as a product soon attracted buys that enabled the brand to eventually rise again. It was a bittersweet outcome for Bradham, who sacrificed his thriving enterprise to forces beyond his control.

HE SOLD PEPSI FOR $30,000

© History Oasis

With heavy debts forcing his soda empire into bankruptcy in 1923, Caleb Bradham reluctantly acquiesced to liquidate the company he built from the ground up over 20 years.

Though Pepsi-Cola maintained its beloved market clout, the corporation itself lay financially underwater.

Facing mounting pressure from creditors in bankruptcy proceedings, Bradham had no choice but to put the remaining assets of Pepsi-Cola Company on the auction block in late 1923. He watched helplessly as decades of his life’s work crumbled.

After a round of frenetic bidding, the tangible assets, secret formula, trademark, and modest infrastructure to produce Pepsi-Cola were scooped up for $30,000 by the Craven Holding Corporation—a company hastily organized by a small group of local investors.
It was a fraction of their actual value, but with bankruptcy mandating a sale, there was little Bradham could do to stem the tide as 12 years of entrepreneurial sweat and industry went up for grabs on the cheap.

The inauspicious deal represented both a sorry end and hopeful new beginning. It effectively transferred the future of Pepsi-Cola to new owners, setting the stage for national success Bradham alone could never resurrect given times and circumstances.

BRADHAM RETIRED AS A HUMBLE PHARMACIST

Caleb Bradham as pharmacist in old age
© History Oasis

Although his soda empire crumbled, Caleb Bradham refused to abdicate his entrepreneurial spirit even in adversity.

After painfully surrendering control of the Pepsi-Cola Company following its 1923 bankruptcy, he dusted himself off and opted to return full-time to his first business love—the humble Bradham Drug Store back home in New Bern, North Carolina where Pepsi-Cola was originally conceived.

The neighborhood pharmacy and soda fountain on Middle Street was still Bradham’s pride and joy. As bittersweet as excising himself from the flailing cola company he birthed was, Caleb took solace in the reliability of his hometown enterprise.

Business slowly returned to normalcy as Bradham contentedly served familiar patrons and nurtured community wellbeing through traditional druggist trade.

By 1933 at the twilight of his life, bankrupt multi-million dollar soda tycoon happily resumed his initial vocation as small town pharmacist. It was both an ironic and fitting coda.

Staying grounded to his regional roots, Caleb Bradham came full circle.

Though the dizzying fame and fortune of a 20th century staple swirled in Pepsi-Cola’s fizz without him, the simple joys of running a corner store satisfied Bradham as much in the end as global conquest once promised.

Collection

Next