A History of the World in Six Glasses

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Coca-Cola Symbol Analysis

Coca-Cola Symbol Icon

For Standage, Coca-Cola’s status as the beverage that symbolizes America in all its glory and weakness began during the Great Depression, when the company ran a brilliant series of ads that depicted Coke as an “all-American” product, fit for the entire family to enjoy. Coke’s symbolic associations with America became still stronger when, during World War II, the company promised every American soldier a bottle of Coke—a move that resulted in the establishment of Coca-Cola facilities across the world. During the Cold War, intellectuals on the left often took aim at Coca-Cola when they wanted to attack the U.S. While the notion of associating an entire country with a mere soft drink may seem misguided, this was precisely the critics’ point: by valuing a mere soft drink so highly, they argued, the U.S. was confirming its status as a crude, ignorant nation, more interested in satisfying people’s pettiest needs than in addressing matters of right and wrong on the global stage. Standage ends his book with one of his most provocative claims: love it or hate it, Coke represents everything that’s right and wrong about America.

Coca-Cola Quotes in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The A History of the World in Six Glasses quotes below all refer to the symbol of Coca-Cola. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Innovation and Competition Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Walker Publishing Company edition of A History of the World in Six Glasses published in 2006.
Chapter 11 Quotes

Ultimately, [Coke and Pepsi] benefited from each other’s existence: the existence of a rival kept Coca-Cola on its toes, and Pepsi-Cola’s selling proposition, that it offered twice as much for the same price, was only possible because Coca-Cola had established the market in the first place. The rivalry was a classic example of how vigorous competition can benefit consumers and increase demand.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the major themes of Standage's book, especially in the second half, is the rise of capitalism: the economic system in which private businesses compete with one another to offer superior goods at the best prices. At its best, capitalist competition can reduce prices, benefitting customers, while also improving businesses and inspiring innovation. In the rivalry between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the two companies offered a very similar product, so they had to use clever marketing and business strategies to impress customers. Most importantly, both companies had to offer the cheapest soda possible, since low price, at least as much as high quality, attracted customers. In the end, both Coke and Pepsi became highly successful companies. Their success reflected the rise of capitalism as a whole in the United States (and foreshadowed the way that Coke would be conflated with capitalism itself throughout the Cold War).

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Chapter 12 Quotes

Coca-Cola came to stand for everything that was deemed wrong with capitalism, particularly the notion that satisfying consumers’ often trivial demands should be the organizing principle of the economy.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:

The history of Coca-Cola is perhaps the best example of Standage's thesis that beverages symbolize ideas and entire cultures. In the case of Coke, the soft drink came to symbolize the spirit of American capitalism. In part, Coke came to symbolize capitalism because the drink was heavily associated with the American military during World War Two. After the war, Coke was conflated with America, but specifically with America's militaristic, aggressive policies. For intellectuals and philosophers, Coca-Cola was virtually a military force: a cultural weapon that, much like capitalism, "conquered" sophisticated cultures and replaced them with disgusting, mass-produced products. (In Italy, for example, the popularity of Coke helped shut down some of the country's prized vineyards.)

The quotation also suggests how Coke came to symbolize the vacuousness and triteness of mass capitalism. For some, the fact that Coca-Cola was a cheap, available, and widely-consumed product was a symbol of American society at its best. For others, though, the very fact that everyone drank Coke represented how American capitalism was making people dull, unimaginative, and narrow-minded.

Coca-Cola is unquestionably the drink of the twentieth century, and all that goes with it: the rise of the United Sates, the triumph of capitalism over consumerism, and the advance of globalization. Whether you approve of that mixture or not, you cannot deny the breadth of its appeal.

Related Symbols: Coca-Cola
Page Number: 265
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation sums up Standage's arguments about the history of Coca-Cola during the 20th century. Standage argues that Coca-Cola reflects the rise of America, capitalism, and globalization. The very fact that people on all seven continents, of all races, religions, and classes, consume Coke is a tribute to the success of globalization: thanks to the availability of Coca-Cola, the people of the world are "united" with one another via what they buy.

Notably, Standage doesn't offer judgment on whether or not the rise of Coca-Cola is worth celebrating or condemning; he leaves his readers to make up their own minds. His role as a historian and an author is to present the facts, not to interpret them in terms of "good" or "bad."

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Coca-Cola Symbol Timeline in A History of the World in Six Glasses

The timeline below shows where the symbol Coca-Cola appears in A History of the World in Six Glasses. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Introduction: Vital Fluids
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...things about human culture. He singles out six drinks: beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola. Each one was “the defining drink during a pivotal historical period.” (full context)
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...Africa, and Asia. In the 20th century, perhaps the defining drink has been Coca Cola. Coke has become a symbol of America: American optimism, capitalism, and commercialism. (full context)
Chapter 11: From Soda to Cola
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...the history of American dominance on the global stage is mirrored in the history of Coca-Cola, sometimes seen as the ultimate symbol of American values and weaknesses. For some, Coke is... (full context)
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The invention of Coca Cola was anticipated the research of the 18th century British chemist Joseph Priestley. Priestley discovered the... (full context)
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In 1887, John Pemberton, a pharmacist living in Atlanta, Georgia, invented the earliest version of Coca Cola . It’s sometimes claimed that Pemberton was trying to invent a cure for headaches, but... (full context)
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...the kola plant from West Africa, while also keeping the coco­a leaves. The result was Coca-Cola, named after the two primary ingredients in the drink. The man who named Coca-Cola was... (full context)
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Pemberton marketed Coca-Cola by claiming that it was “exhilarating” and “invigorating,” and claiming that it could cure headaches,... (full context)
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The “Coca-Cola war” of the late 1880s ended abruptly with Pemberton’s death from cancer. A shrewd Georgia... (full context)
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By the 1890s, Asa Candler’s Coca-Cola had become so popular that he sold more than 75,000 gallons of it every month.... (full context)
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By the 1910s, Coca-Cola was being sold in bottled form. Around this time, a scientist named Harvey Washington Wiley... (full context)
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During the Great Depression, Coca-Cola developed successful new strategies for selling its product. The company publicist Archie Lee approved ads... (full context)
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In spite of its popularity during the 1930s, Coke at this time faced competition from PepsiCola. The PepsiCola company had been in existence since... (full context)
Chapter 12: Globalization in a Bottle
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...global consensus that people are happiest when they’re free to choose what they want. Peculiarly, Coca-Cola represents this belief better than almost any single product. (full context)
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Coke became a truly global product after World War II, at the same time that America... (full context)
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After World War II ended in 1945, Coca-Cola plants remained in Africa, Europe, and Asia, and became conventional, non-military facilities. As a result,... (full context)
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Because Coca-Cola became a universal symbol of America in the 1950s, it also became a symbol of... (full context)
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Although Coca-Cola’s association with American power had been a great asset for the company in the 1940s... (full context)
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Coca-Cola’s strong associations with the U.S. also prevented it from spreading to the Middle East. Coke... (full context)
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To this day, Coke is a benchmark of America’s presence in foreign countries. Studies have shown that countries in... (full context)
Epilogue: Back to the Source
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Standage concludes by reiterating that ordinary drinks like beer and Coke “tell stories” about history. Although drinking a coffee or a glass of wine is an... (full context)