On this day in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia, American pharmacist John Pemberton first began selling his newly-invented carbonated beverage, Coca-Cola, which he patented as a medicine and claimed was a “valuable brain tonic” that would cure headaches, relieve exhaustion and calm nerves.
Launched amid growing concern about depression, alcoholism, and anxiety, it was marketed as “delicious, refreshing, pure joy, exhilarating,” and “invigorating” and was particularly targeted towards war veterans, “highly-strung” women, and “all those whose sedentary employment causes nervous prostration (weakness).”
A Confederate veteran of the U.S. Civil War, Pemberton became addicted to the morphine that was used on wounded soldiers and began working on opium-free painkillers that would serve as an alternative. He began experimenting with coca and coca wines, eventually creating “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca”, his own version of Vin Mariani (an alcoholic coca-based French tonic) that also contained kola nut (a caffeine-rich fruit) and damiana (a chamomile-like shrub).
When Atlanta and Fulton County enacted temperance legislation, Pemberton was forced to produce a non-alcoholic alternative to this product, turning to fellow pharmacist Willis Venable to test and formulate the perfect concoction. With his assistance, and after much trial and error, Pemberton worked out a formula after accidentally blending the base syrup of his existing coca drink with carbonated water (the latter then considered to have medicinal properties).
He then turned to marketer Frank Mason Robinson to come up with a name; Robinson opted for “Coca-Cola” because it captured the two main ingredients (coca and kola nut) while offering a catchy, alliterative sound (which was popular among other medicines of the time). Robinson also hand-wrote the name in the recognizable Spencerian script that remains iconic to this day.
Funny enough, the controversy over its cocaine content would later prompt The Coca-Cola Company to state that the name was “meaningless but fanciful.”
Soon after Coca-Cola hit the market, Pemberton fell ill and became nearly bankrupt, with his morphine addiction worsening. He began selling the rights to some of his Atlanta business partners, but suspected that his formula would “some day…be a national drink” and attempted to retain some share of the ownership to leave to his son. However, two years later Pemberton and his son would sell the remaining portion of the patent to tycoon Asa Candler, who would ultimately make Coca-Cola the global brand it is today.