In the 19th century, the United States was a major industrial power, exceeding even the United Kingdom, where the Industrial Revolution began. The culture of the United States was perfect for an age of mass production: because of the country’s strong emphasis on equality and reduced class boundaries, products could be mass-produced instead of being tediously tailored to each region’s preferences. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S had eclipsed Britain as the world’s leading industrial power—one sure sign of this was that British companies imported American machinery, rather than the other way around. By the 1950s, America was the world’s dominant superpower, rivaled only by the Soviet Union. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, America remained the world’s only superpower, confirming that the 20th century was truly the “American century.”
This paragraph could easily be its own book: the history of America from the Civil War to the present day is a mammoth topic, after all. But as usual, Standage isn’t concerned with details—he’s focusing on big ideas and overarching trends. The major trend that he identifies in this section is the rise of American power, and with it the rise of industrial capitalism around the world. It’s hard to argue with Standage that this is the dominant “story” of the last 150 years. America spread capitalism across much of the globe, and its preeminence in the 90s, after the fall of the U.S.S.R., seemed to confirm the superiority of liberal capitalism over other forms of government and economies.
Standage proposes that 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 the ultimate symbol of equality, unpretentiousness, and mass culture. For others, Coke is the symbol of capitalism, greed, imperialism, and cultural genocide.
For his final chapters, Standage argues for Coca-Cola as the symbol of American hegemony. This is a provocative thesis (and probably the most controversial beverage of the book), but also somewhat familiar—as even Coke’s advertisements suggest that it’s “America’s drink.” As with tea and the British Empire, Coke is the symbol of everything both good and bad about the “American Empire.”
The invention of Coca Cola was anticipated the research of the 18th century British chemist Joseph Priestley. Priestley discovered the relationship between oxygen and carbon dioxide, and is often credited with the discovery of oxygen itself. Priestley was also the first to learn how to combine gas with water to produce “sparkling water.” In 1772, he published a chemistry book in which he explained how to make sparkling water. Priestley suggested that sparkling water could be used as a medicine for fighting nausea, tiredness, and even scurvy.
It’s remarkable that all six of the drinks in this book were originally celebrated for their health benefits. And yet despite this, they have only survived over the centuries because they became ordinary, commercial drinks, rather than medicines. It’s also ironic that the most “modern” of these medicinal beverages—Coca-Cola—is actually one of the most unhealthy. Standage doesn’t actually deal with the health benefits or problems of any of his beverages, however.
For the remainder of the 18th century, sparkling water appeared as a medical beverage. The simplest sparkling waters incorporated sodium bicarbonate, abbreviated to “soda”—hence the generic name for fizzy water products. Soda became most popular in the U.S., where the chemist Benjamin Silliman began selling bottled soda water in the early 1800s. Shortly after Silliman began selling soda, Americans found other recipes for the liquid. The “wine spritzer” was invented when chemists discovered that wine mixed with soda was less intoxicating than wine by itself. Slowly, soda moved from a medicine to an ordinary beverage.
This section is important because it shows us that the technology behind brewing and packaging soda has been around for 150 years—longer than we might think. Here Standage also explains the process by which soda (like the other beverages in this book) moved from being a medicine to being an ordinary drink.
By the mid-19th century, soda was very popular in America. John Matthews, an entrepreneur, devised more than 100 patents for every stage of selling soda: bottling it, dispensing it at a soda fountain, washing the bottles, etc. Soda was perhaps the most representative mass-produced commodity in America: cheap, easy to transport, and completely interchangeable. As early as the 1890s, writers praised soda for its democratic, egalitarian implications. One writer wrote, “The millionaire may drink champagne while the poor man drinks beer, but they both drink soda water.”
Standage had suggested that tea was the quintessential drink of the assembly line, but his argument is different and more compelling here. Workers drank tea on their breaks, but Coke was actually produced and packaged according to the rules of mass production—still a new business model at the time.
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 the truth is that Pemberton was responding to the trend of “miracle tonics” in the 19th century. Quack doctors sold medicines that supposedly cured diseases—though often these medicines were themselves highly dangerous. These doctors were among the first people to recognize the importance of branding and advertising: they invented slogans, logos, and ad campaigns to market their brews. Pemberton’s first attempt at a miracle-cure, which he called French Wine Coca, contained the leaves of the cocoa plant. It had been known since the 1850s that cocoa could stimulate the nervous system and lessen the appetite (cocoa leaves can also be used to produce cocaine).
Coke was an important step forward for American business in several ways. First, it made use of exotic plants from other countries, confirming America’s status as a major imperial power. Second, it (along with the many other miracle tonics available at the time) proved that advertising was crucial for a business. While Coke was still sold as a medicine at the time, it wouldn’t be long before it was marketed as an ordinary beverage, meant to be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds. By this point in the book, we’ve come a long way from beer and wine—drinks which were originally celebrated for their medical and religious properties.
Pemberton’s original recipe for French Wine Coca contained alcohol. But because he recognized the influence of the Temperance Movement, which was trying to illegalize consumption of alcohol in the U.S., he decided to produce a non-alcoholic drink. In place of wine, Pemberton added the seeds of 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 probably Frank Robinson, one of Pemberton’s business partners. It was also Robinson who designed Coca-Cola’s signature cursive logo.
In this expository section, we learn some interesting information about the history of the Coca-Cola label. We’re also reminded of the importance of foreign products in Coca-Cola, proof that America had the military and naval power to travel the world and bring back exotic resources. As usual, Standage doesn’t linger on the human cost of these “advantages” of imperialism.
Pemberton marketed Coca-Cola by claiming that it was “exhilarating” and “invigorating,” and claiming that it could cure headaches, hysteria, melancholy, and other diseases. Coca-Cola became very popular, partly because it was non-alcoholic in a time when the Temperance movement was becoming highly influential. Indeed, by 1887, Pemberton, unbeknownst to Frank Robinson, decided to sell some of his Coca-Cola company shares to other businessmen. This created a controversy, in which Robinson, Pemberton, and the businessmen who bought Pemberton’s shares all claimed to be brewers of the “real” Coca-Cola.
This conflict between rival vendors of Coca-Cola is unprecedented in Standage’s book (nobody argued over who was brewing “real” coffee in 17th-century England, for example), and yet it’s entirely appropriate that these kinds of controversies should have broken out in late 19th-century America. America was (and is) a capitalist society—one that depends on competition between businesses. The theme of competition will recur throughout Standage’s history of Coke, reflecting the capitalist economy that created Coke and made it popular.
The “Coca-Cola war” of the late 1880s ended abruptly with Pemberton’s death from cancer. A shrewd Georgia businessman named Asa Candler then teamed up with Frank Robinson and began buying up rights to brew Coca-Cola. Candler made a moving, widely attended speech in which he claimed to have been one of Pemberton’s closest friends. Based largely on the moral weight of his supposed friendship with Pemberton (a complete lie), Candler quickly became known as the “true” brewer of Coca-Cola.
Candler was a liar and con-artist, but also an effective businessman—and, Standage suggests, maybe those two things aren’t so different at the end of the day. With this emphasis on the “real” brewer of Coca-Cola, we also come to see the importance of branding, especially in a capitalist, consumerist society like America.
By the 1890s, Asa Candler’s Coca-Cola had become so popular that he sold more than 75,000 gallons of it every month. Coca-Cola was being sold in almost every state in the union, and some hailed it as the national beverage. Yet Candler never sold Coca-Cola in bottles—instead he sold Coke in syrup form, and customers had to brew the drink themselves by mixing the syrup with water. In the late 1890s, Candler broadened his product’s appeal by rebranding Coca-Cola as an ordinary beverage instead of a medicine. This rebranding strategy turned out to come at the perfect time: by switching Coca-Cola from a medicine to a drink, Candler avoided a costly national tax on medical tonics that could have crippled his company.
It seems strange for us as modern readers that the forward-thinking Candler insisted on Coke being sold as a syrup. The Coca-Cola bottle is such a ubiquitous image in our society that we forget that at one time, it was seen as a waste of money for companies to bottle their own products before selling them. This also shows how the instant-gratification aspect of bottled Coke (not having to mix anything yourself) contributed to its popularity as well.
By the 1910s, Coca-Cola was being sold in bottled form. Around this time, a scientist named Harvey Washington Wiley launched a national campaign claiming that Coke caused violence, delinquency, and sexual promiscuity in its consumers. In 1911, federal cases concluded that Candler’s Coca-Cola company had the right to sell its product, since Candler didn’t claim that Coke was anything other than a caffeinated beverage. One interesting detail of this ruling, however, was that Coca-Cola couldn’t depict children in its advertisements. Indeed, Coca-Cola ads wouldn’t depict children until the 1980s. Instead of depicting children directly, Coke thus had to find other strategies for appealing to children. One of the most famous of these strategies was to depict Santa Claus with a Coke bottle. While it’s often claimed that Coke popularized the modern conception of Santa (as a fat man with a red suit and a white beard), this is a myth—by the 1930s, when Coke launched its ad campaign, the modern conception of Santa was already widely known.
Wiley’s campaign against Coca-Cola seems a little absurd by modern standards, but it’s an observable fact that whenever anything new becomes popular—whether it’s the bicycle, the television, or Harry Potter—there will always be reactionaries declaiming it as evil. We know now that Coca-Cola doesn’t affect one’s promiscuity or aggression, but it does have physical effects on its consumers—most of them negative. It’s also here that we learn that Coke did not pioneer the modern depiction of Santa Claus—but perhaps it proves something that this myth is so pervasive. It’s indicative of Coke’s preeminence in the world of advertising, and of the vast influence that Americans know the Coca-Cola company to have—and also of the current cynical attitude towards advertising and capitalism, after decades of Coke-style corporate corruption.
During the Great Depression, Coca-Cola developed successful new strategies for selling its product. The company publicist Archie Lee approved ads depicting Coke as the ultimate social drink—a wholesome, family beverage that could be enjoyed on dates, in the home, or in shops. Largely as a result of these carefree, escapist ads, Coke became even more popular during the Depression.
Archie Lee, more than anyone else, may be responsible for making Coke the world-renowned beverage it is today. If Lee hadn’t kept Coke going through the Depression, it’s possible that the company wouldn’t have been able to parlay its advantage into worldwide success during World War II.
In spite of its popularity during the 1930s, Coke at this time faced competition from PepsiCola. The PepsiCola company had been in existence since the 1890s, but only in the 1930s did it become a serious rival to Coke. PepsiCola benefited from the fact that its product looked and tasted like Coke—many customers mistakenly purchased Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola. This prompted a series of vicious lawsuits alleging that Pepsi was trying to imitate Coke in order to be more successful. By 1942, Pepsi and Coke had ended their legal battles, and Pepsi adopted a new label that clearly distinguished it from Coca-Cola. Ultimately, Pepsi and Coke benefited from each other’s existence, as the two companies kept each other efficient and well-managed. Today, business schools often treat the Coke-Pepsi rivalry as a good example of how competition can benefit everyone: both the companies and the consumers.
The rivalry between Coke and Pepsi is another good example of the importance of capitalism in Coke’s history. As Standage argues, Coke and Pepsi kept each other in business—if either drink had gone up in price, or tasted any different, than the other soda would have become far more popular, putting its competitor out of business. The fact that Coke and Pepsi taste more or less the same, however, is an early sign of the homogenization of world culture that Coke has come to symbolize in some circles: it’s replaced the diverse cultural traditions of the world with two mass-produced products, between which no one can tell the difference.