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The Self-Made Man: Asa Candler

I’ve been drinking Coke (and more recently, Coke Zero) for years now, but I never knew who invented it or how it became the global phenomenon (minus Cuba and North Korea) it is today. Luckily, this Self Made Man column justifies my curiosity about things like this, and it turns out that Coke was invented by a eccentric pharmacist who sold it to Asa Candler, the man who realized the drink’s full potential.

Candler was born in Georgia in 1851, the eighth of eleven children, and was raised with a firm work ethic. Unlike his brothers, who went to college and established themselves as lawyers and clergymen, Asa went into the pharmacy business and started making patent medicines, and was consequently written off by his father as a screw-up.

A hasty judgment, it turned out. Candler stumbled upon Coca-Cola when he bought a glass from its inventor, pharmacist John Pemberton, to cure a pervasive headache. Candler liked it so much that he pulled some money together and bought the rights and name from Pemberton for $550 in 1888, and started selling it as a soft drink instead of a medicinal beverage.

Note: I’m skipping the part of Candler’s acquisition story where he had to make extremely convoluted amends to Pemberton’s business partners and extended family, but trust me, it’s better this way.

Besides, Candler did a lot with Coke after he bought it. He started distributing it beyond the greater Atlanta area, for one thing, selling the syrup to drugstores all over the South and even setting up a series of contracts with bottling plants to sell Coke in bottles, which paved the way for national distribution (although Candler was hesitant about that, since cars hadn’t been invented yet and trains weren’t a cost-effective shipping option for him).

Candler also marketed his new acquisition aggressively. He distributed coupons for free samples of Coke, and followed that up with ads in newspapers and almanacs, as well as giving out branded promotional items to participating pharmacies. Pretty standard stuff for today, but that sort of thing wasn’t nearly as common back in Candler’s era, and it got results. Coke’s now-famous contour bottle shape was introduced in 1916, which also helped it stand apart from the competition and lend consistency to the brand, which was at the mercy of imitators thanks to slipshod labeling by the numerous independent bottling plants pumping the stuff out.

By 1920, Coca-Cola had made Asa Candler a millionaire, and he left the company to his children so he could concentrate on philanthropy?he more or less bankrolled Emory University himself?and public life, including a stint as the mayor of Atlanta.

While Candler didn’t invent Coca-Cola, he did guide it towards its true potential through hard work and an eye for opportunity, and we’d probably all be drinking Pepsi today were it not for his efforts. Or worse, RC Cola. Either way, I think TSB readers owe him a little gratitude for sparing us that horrible fate.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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