What Was Coca-Cola Originally Made For?


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"Coca-Cola is the most refreshing, exhilarating, soothing, and delicious beverage that has ever been offered to the people, and its circle of consumers is constantly widening. It is growing into favor everywhere, taking the place of all other drinks at the soda fountains and paying the dealers better profit than any other fountain beverage on the market."

—Asa Griggs Candler

As a ubiquitous symbol of Americana, Coca-Cola today evokes images of sharing a Coke with friends or enjoying ice-cold refreshment on a hot summer day.

Yet behind its modern identity as a beloved soda pop lies a fascinating history that asks the question: what was Coca-Cola originally made for?


various patent medicines
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As a trained pharmacist, John S. Pemberton would have been intimately familiar with the panoply of medicinal remedies and patent medicines of his era.

When he formulated the original Coca-Cola in 1886 Atlanta, his combination of coca leaf extract and kola nut extract followed standard practices of the patent medicine trade.

Pemberton was not alone in his enthusiastic claims that this new tonic could cure myriad afflictions.

The late 19th century was rife with cure-all remedies peddled by pharmacists, doctors, and traveling salesmen, often containing unregulated and habit-forming ingredients like cocaine or alcohol. Profit trumped patient safety, as these nostrums made lofty promises targeting nervous disorders, physical weakness, and sexual dysfunction.

Coca-Cola was squarely billed as one such invigorating cure.

Print advertisements lauded it as a remedy for exhaustion, headaches, impotence, addiction, and digestive troubles. Its promoters called it an "intellectual beverage" able to renew mental vitality and focus. The coca leaf's cocaine content provided a stimulant kick, while caffeine from kola nuts added further stimulation.

Pemberton's own addictions likely influenced Coca-Cola's development—he suffered from morphine dependence after being wounded in the Civil War. Touting Coca-Cola as a cure for morphine addiction was thus self-serving.

Sadly, he would not live to see his creation become a wildly popular soda freed from its addictive and ineffective origins as a medical tonic.

For all its initial faults, Coca-Cola emerged as one of the great business success stories of American commerce.


Cocaine pored into Coca-Cola
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As an avid pharmacist, John Pemberton would have been keenly aware of the purported medicinal properties of cocaine in the 1880s.

Long before recreational abuse made it infamous, cocaine was hailed in medical circles for its ability to confer mental and physical stimulation. Unfettered by modern regulation, Pemberton liberally incorporated cocaine along with caffeine into his original Coca-Cola formula.

By steeping five ounces of coca leaf per gallon of syrup, Pemberton extracted cocaine in a concentration of around 60 mg per serving of Coca-Cola. This followed standard extraction methods of the era, using alcohol to draw out the psychoactive components of the coca leaf.

While risky by today's standards, cocaine tinctures and extracts were common in patent medicines of the period.

Pemberton's decision to include a narcotic like cocaine may have been morally dubious, but it was not illegal. The use of cocaine as an anesthetic was hailed by the medical community, blind to its addictive and destructive potential.

Its ability to provide stimulation made it a coveted ingredient in beverages, alcohol alternatives, alertness pills, and a variety of dodgy health treatments.

Of course, we now know cocaine to be a powerfully dependency-forming substance with considerable health risks. But in the 1880s, its dangers were not widely known or understood.

While Pemberton cannot be absolved for profiting from cocaine addiction, his actions reflected the misguided medical consensus of his time. It would take years of harm before society awakened to the costs of cocaine in tonics and patent medicines.

Ultimately, Coca-Cola outgrew its crude pharmaceutical origins. But examining its historical formula reveals how pervasive and accepted cocaine once was in medical practice. For that, Pemberton was less villain than flawed product of his era’s primitive pharmacology.


a smart woman drinking Coca-Cola in the late 1800s
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The cursory health claims of patent medicines at the turn of the 20th century could be wildly exaggerated. Yet John Pemberton was downright modest compared to some proprietors when marketing his new Coca-Cola tonic in 1886. Avoiding promises to cure cancer or restore virility, he billed it simply as an "intellectual beverage" to rejuvenate the mind and body.

Early Coca-Cola slogans zeroed in on this boost of mental and physical vitality.

Advertisements hailed it as "invigorating" and "refreshing"—vague but credible assertions. While not claiming to cure consumption or cataracts, the copy suggested Coca-Cola could sharpen thinking and provide stimulation.

This nascent branding wisely avoided specifics that might land Pemberton in hot water or clash with customers' actual experience. By keeping promises vague, he allowed Coca-Cola fans to subjectively experience the promoted benefits.

And some likely did feel invigorated, whether from cocaine, caffeine, or simply the power of suggestion.

In this way, Pemberton artfully walked the line between masking Coca-Cola's medication origins and making it appeal to customers seeking a pick-me-up.

His advertising genius lay in letting the product's secret cocktail do the work while the marketing subtly stoked demand. Unlike many patent medicine hucksters, Pemberton understood that under-promising could boost long-term success.  

This early faith in Coca-Cola’s subtle effects paved the way for its future as a beloved refreshment free of medical baggage.

Pemberton called it an intellectual beverage, but customers ultimately loved it for simpler reasons—its great taste and lift for body and spirit.

By escaping the fate of other falsified medicines, Coca-Cola became known for honest pleasures, just as its first ads promised.


A soda fountain in the late 1800s
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Though today Coca-Cola is synonymous with soda fountains and five-cent Cokes, its origins were far from frivolous refreshment.

Coca-Cola’s first customers were patients, not patrons.

Arriving with an ailment, they visited the soda fountain much as one would a pharmacy counter or doctor’s office. The white-coated soda jerk assumed the role of pharmacist, dispensing Coca-Cola on Pemberton’s medical recommendation.

At just five cents a glass, Coca-Cola was reasonably priced medicine for the ailing masses. This built key brand familiarity among the very groups Pemberton first targeted—morphine addicts, headache sufferers, the dyspeptic.

Enabled by the low cost, word spread organically among those seeking relief via Coca-Cola’s vaguely-hyped restorative powers.

Of course, we now recognize this “remedy” was no cure-all elixir. But Pemberton’s genius lay in seamlessly blending medicine and merchandising.

By first establishing Coca-Cola as an apothecary’s tonic, he pioneered pharmacy soda sales. In those pivotal early days at the soda fountain, Coca-Cola transcended frivolity and refreshment.

For better or worse, it was sustenance for the suffering—promising succor, one 5-cent dose at a time.


different types of people during the temperance movement
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As public sentiment turned against alcohol in the late 1800s, the fortunes of patent medicines and cocaine-laced beverages rose.

Seeking alcohol-free alternatives, many Americans began frequenting soda fountains for refreshment over saloons. Cognizant of this shift, Coca-Cola pivoted its marketing from medicine to temperance drink.

Coca-Cola had always contained trace amounts of wine left from processing the coca leaf extract. But as the temperance movement grew, this liability became an asset.

Advertisements now billed Coca-Cola as the “new and popular temperance drink”, later expanded to tout it as “the invaluable brain tonic and intellectual soda fountain beverage”.

Rather than hide its wine origins, Coca-Cola embraced them by equating its lift to coca wine—a French wine infused with coca leaf. This conveyed Coca-Cola’s stimulation and sophistication for a bourbon-weary public.

As an alcohol-free alternative, it checked the temperance boxes while providing the same cocaine kick as wine fortified with coca.

Candler astutely recognized public fatigue with hard liquor’s ills.

By styling Coca-Cola as a temperance drink, he dispelled notions it was a mere medical concoction. Instead, it was now acceptable refreshment with a virtuous lack of alcohol yet all the energy and enjoyment of a fine wine.

This paved the way for Coca-Cola’s long lifespan, which it owed not just to the drink itself but how it was marketed to align with the evolving tides of public opinion.


Kola nuts used for their caffeine in Coca-Cola
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By the turn of the 20th century, attitudes towards cocaine had curdled from benign to suspicious.

Alarmed by rising recreational use, public officials called for regulation of patent medicines laced with narcotics. Coca-Cola faced a reckoning—either remove the controversial cocaine or jeopardize its future.

While a momentous concession, eliminating cocaine crucially let Coca-Cola keep its signature name in 1903. After all, the “Coca” referred to coca leaf extract, not the active drug isolated from it.

This semantic pivot was key to retaining brand continuity even sans cocaine.

With cocaine swapped for innocuous caffeine from kola nuts, Coca-Cola shed the troublesome vestiges of its pharmaceutical origins. No longer sold as a nebulous brain tonic, its advertising now focused on refreshment and invigoration solely from natural flavors.

This marked Coca-Cola’s full evolution into modern soda—a revitalizing drink free of drugs or claims to cure.

Stripped of its 19th century medicinal baggage, it became simply a delightful beverage to enjoy in its own right. Its rise moving forward owed nothing to spurious health promises and everything to taste, affordability, and strategic marketing.

By leaving its controversial past behind, Coca-Cola deftly renewed itself for the 20th century as an all-American brand.

Though its name still nodded to bygone roots, it had become a thoroughly modern refreshment unencumbered by its apothecary origins. Against the odds, this soft drink survived by learning to move beyond hard drugs.