For God, Country, and Coca-Cola

The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It


By Mark Pendergrast

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For God, Country and Coca-Cola is the unauthorized history of the great American soft drink and the company that makes it. From its origins as a patent medicine in Reconstruction Atlanta through its rise as the dominant consumer beverage of the American century, the story of Coke is as unique, tasty, and effervescent as the drink itself. With vivid portraits of the entrepreneurs who founded the company — and of the colorful cast of hustlers, swindlers, ad men, and con men who have made Coca-Cola the most recognized trademark in the world — this is business history at its best: in fact, “The Real Thing.”



For God, Country & Coca-Cola

“In For God, Country & Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast has written an encyclopedic history of Coke and its subculture, and used Coca-Cola as a metaphor for the growth of modern capitalism itself. His research and storytelling skills are prodigious.”

Washington Post

“A meticulously researched history. . . . [Pendergrast] aggressively sets the record straight about the birth of Coke, shattering company myths.”

New York Times Book Review

“A detailed and marvelously entertaining history . . . a book as substantial and satisfying as its subject is (at least in nutritional terms) inconsequential.”

Los Angeles Times

“Behind the glitz and fanfare, the bubbly brown beverage has had a tortured and controversy-filled history. It is meticulously chronicled in a new account, For God, Country & Coca-Cola.”

The Wall Street Journal

“A ripping good story of more than a soft drink or a company, this book is about the whole of America. It may be the greatest American story ever.”

The New York Observer

“In For God, Country & Coca-Cola, author Mark Pendergrast combines lively writing and extensive research to tell the story of the caramel-colored drink that grew into a worldwide corporation and cultural phenomenon. Like its subject, Pendergrast’s entertaining book can claim to be the real thing.”

USA Today

“The book is full of wonderful stories and tidbits. . . . [W]hen Pendergrast reports the Cokelore he has gathered so assiduously, he is superb.”

Washington Monthly

“As Atlanta native Mark Pendergrast tells us in For God, Country & Coca-Cola, an obsession with growth has been a company hallmark for most of the past century. Pendergrast’s account is a good deal more intriguing than the sanitized corporate history Coke peddles at its World of Coca-Cola museum.”

Business Week

“By the time we move on to Coke’s globe-drenching present, we have learned to trust Pendergrast’s thorough research, lively style, and sense of perspective. [His book] is an epic, unbelievably grand in scope and implication.”

Valley News

“It is easy to trivialize soda . . . but as Mark Pendergrast demonstrates, to the people at Coke it is a deadly serious business. . . . He succeeds admirably in demonstrating . . . how Coke conquered the world.”

Philadelphia Inquirer

“An excellent and entertaining book! I read this book and simply couldn’t put it down! I bought 8 copies of it to give to family and friends as gifts. I’ll never look at a Coca-Cola product the same way again. From a business or historical perspective, this is a great read!”

—Amazon customer review

~ 1916 ~

Business has its Romance. The inner history of every great business success is just as stirring and fascinating as the most imaginative story ever told. Real success never comes easy. . . . Progress has been achieved only through continual struggle and hard, patient work. It has called for ingenuity and resource of the highest order, the courage that accepted no defeat, the endurance that wore down all opposition, the confidence that overcame every jealous libel.

And such has been the history of Coca-Cola.

—“The Romance of Coca-Cola” (booklet)

~ May 2 1, 1942 ~

Since 1886 . . . changes have been the order of the day, the month, the year. These changes, I may add, are partly or wholly the result of the very existence of The Coca-Cola Company and its product. . . . They have created satisfactions, given pleasure, inspired imitators, intrigued crooks. . . . Coca-Cola is not an essential, as we would like it to be. It is an idea—it is a symbol—it is a mark of genius inspired.

—Letter from advertising man William C. D’Arcy

~ March 24, 1959 ~

Please, Mr. Kahn, you’ve written some excellent articles and profiles, but why all this effort spent on Coca-Cola? I can’t conceive that it could be interesting to enough people to be worth your using all that paper, all those thousands of words, and hours of labor to write it. In addition, I consider it a most noxious drink.

—Letter to E. J. Kahn Jr. in response to a series of articles on Coca-Cola in the New Yorker

~ July 10, 1985 ~

Why read fiction? Why go to movies? Soft drink industry has enough roller coaster plot-dips to make novelists drool.

—Jesse Meyers in Beverage Digest special edition announcing reintroduction of original Coca-Cola


This book has been a kind of “roots” project for me. Since both sides of my family lived in Atlanta from the late nineteenth century on, I suppose it was inevitable that Coca-Cola would intersect our lives many times. My paternal grandfather, J. B. Pendergrast, owned a drugstore at Little Five Points, where he regularly served the soft drink to Asa Candler, the first Coca-Cola tycoon. J. B. testified amusingly about Coke’s nicknames in an early, important Coca-Cola trial, then invested in the Woodruff Syndicate’s takeover of the company in 1919. Unfortunately, J. B. sold the stock a few years later in order to build a house. The most intriguing family story concerns the day young Robert W. Woodruff and his friend Robert W. Schwab discussed Helen Kaiser’s allure as they sat outside her home. “Well,” Woodruff said, “I think I’ll go propose to her right now,” awaiting a protest. “Go ahead,” Schwab answered, feigning lack of interest. When Woodruff returned a few minutes later, he said, “She turned me down. I guess you’ll have to marry her.” Schwab did, later becoming my maternal grandfather.

If Woodruff had married her, perhaps I would be a wealthy man today—or I might not be here at all, since Woodruff, who directed Coca-Cola’s fortunes from 1923 until his death in 1985, had no children. It’s just as well that things worked out the way they did, though, since I’ve enjoyed taking a more objective view of the Company and its entertaining role in world history. I hope you will, too.

—Mark Pendergrast

Part I

In the Beginning


A hot day in August 1885.*

The tall, bearded old man hesitated before crossing Marietta Street, one of Atlanta’s busy thoroughfares. Horses and buggies clattered on the cobblestone; prosperous businessmen hurried past. Elegantly dressed women with parasols strolled to Jacobs’ Pharmacy on the corner for an ice cream soda. Newsboys hawked the papers, screaming, “Read all about it! Whisky Ring Fights Sin Tax! Temperance Workers Meet! Anti-Prohibition Speech at Opera House a Flop! Read all about it!”

“I’ll take a paper, son.” Pursing his lips, temporarily forgetting the busy street, the man read. There was the usual sensationalism. A local suicide. An attempted lynching. The birth of triplets.

Impatiently, he rifled through the paper. Ah, here was an editorial laying into the liquor license. “It is guilty, at the bar of God and humanity, of this great crime: that it creates, fosters, solicits, incites, stimulates, and multiplies intemperance. The open barroom holds the whisky glass to every man’s lips at every corner.” No doubt about it. Atlanta would go dry; it was only a question of time.

The street cleared momentarily. Folding his paper under his arm, the elderly man crossed the street before another buggy bounced through the intersection. As he put his key into the lock at 107 Marietta Street, a young man briskly lifted his hat on his way by. “Good day, Dr. Pemberton. Hot enough for you, sir?” The old gentleman nodded and smiled. Everyone in Atlanta knew and respected the kindly old patent medicine man, and most took one of his remedies for their cough, dyspepsia, headache, sexual debility, or whatever else ailed them.

As Pemberton entered his laboratory, he looked with satisfaction at his fresh supply of coca leaves, straight from Peru, and at the filtering system he had set up to produce coca extract. He was experimenting with a new concoction, one that he hoped he could sell as a temperance drink and medicine, because the town was in hysteria over the evils of alcohol.

Suddenly Pemberton doubled over with pain. It was his stomach again—heartburn or his ulcer flaring up. His bones ached with rheumatism. Still bent, he fumbled for his secret case in a false-bottomed drawer. Shaking, he filled the hypodermic needle, turned it to his arm, and slowly pushed the plunger. With a deep sigh, he carefully put the needle and materials away and prepared for his experiments.

As he began the experiments that would lead to the invention of Coca-Cola, Dr. John Stith Pemberton was fifty-four years old. He looked at least ten years older. And he was addicted to morphine.


* The mini-dramas introducing each section of the book are fictional re-creations of likely events and should be taken as such.

~ 1 ~

Time Capsule: The Golden Age of Quackery

I’ve been experimenting on a little preparation—a kind of decoction nine-tenths water and the other tenth drugs that don’t cost more than a dollar a barrel. . . . The third year we could easily sell 1,000,000 bottles in the United States—profit at least $350,000—and then it would be time to turn our attention toward the real idea of the business. . . . Why, our headquarters would be in Constantinople and our hindquarters in Further India! . . . Annual income—well, God only knows how many millions and millions!

—Colonel Beriah Sellers, in Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, 1873

There’s no question that The Coca-Cola Company loves its own history. As if to prove the point, in 2007 it spent $38 million on its new Atlanta museum, which indoctrinates over a million Coca-Cola-drenched tourists yearly into the company’s high-tech version of its past. The press release for its predecessor called the museum a “fantasyland,” and, in more ways than one, it is just that. The red-clad young guides (called “ambassadors”) assure visitors, for instance, that Coca-Cola never had any cocaine in it.

The museum carries on a long-standing company tradition. The Coca-Cola saga has been reverentially preserved and nurtured over the years. John Pemberton, who invented Coca-Cola in 1886, has been depicted by the Company as a poor but lovable old Southern root doctor who stumbled upon the miraculous new drink. Although Coca-Cola was supposedly born in a humble three-legged kettle in Pemberton’s backyard rather than in a manger, the story is treated as a kind of Virgin Birth. Coca-Cola’s first archivist, Wilbur Kurtz, described the moment: “He leaned over the pot to smell the bouquet of his brew. Then he took a long wooden spoon and captured a little of the thick brown bubbling contents of the pot, allowing it to cool a moment. He lifted the spoon to his lips and tasted.” Pemberton’s hard work and perseverance in finding just the right taste finally paid off with a stroke of luck when the syrup was inadvertently mixed with carbonated rather than plain water. The customers loved the effervescent drink and smacked their lips in satisfaction.

From that point on, according to Company legend, the drink’s future was assured. Of course, it needed a little help from Asa Candler, who purchased the formula as Pemberton was dying, advertised it widely, and quickly became the wealthiest man in Atlanta. By the early 1900s, the drink’s phenomenal rise to fame was repeatedly called the “romance of Coca-Cola.”

This official version of events is a myth, however. John Pemberton was not an uneducated, simple root doctor. He did not brew the drink in his backyard. More importantly, far from being a unique beverage that sprang out of nowhere, Coca-Cola was a product of its time, place, and culture. It was, like many other such nostrums, a patent medicine with a distinct cocaine kick.

One element of the myth rings true, however. The chances of Coca-Cola’s success were about as remote as Colonel Sellers’ “decoction.” Twain’s passage was an uncannily accurate prophecy of Coca-Cola’s future, however. Today, Coke is the world’s most widely distributed product, available in more than two hundred countries, more than the United Nations membership. “OK” excepted, “Coca-Cola” is the most universally recognized word on earth, and the drink it characterizes has become a symbol of the Western way of life. How, in a century-plus, has a fizzy soft drink, 99 percent sugar water, attained such an astonishing status? Conditions in late nineteenth-century America largely determined its future.


During the Gilded Age, America’s metamorphosis from a land of farmers into an urbanized society of mills and factories was arguably the most wrenching in its history. With the Civil War as a catalyst and turning point, industrialization and a virtual revolution in transportation marked the emergence of a distinctively American brand of capitalism—one that idealized individual hustle and relied heavily upon advertising and newspapers to spread its gospel. The railroad became the symbol and engine of powerful change, allowing the creation of national markets for goods.

The pace was so overwhelming that it generated concern over a new disease characterized by neurotic, psychosomatic symptoms. One writer of the era diagnosed it as the fruits of “an industrial and competitive age.” George Beard labeled the disease “neurasthenia” in his 1881 book, American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences.* Beard attributed the new malady to the dislocations wrought, both socially and economically, by “modern civilization.”

The steam engine, he noted, which was supposed to make work easier, had instead resulted in more frantic lifestyles and in overspecialization, “depressing both to body and mind.” In general, Beard noted, overwork, the strain of economic booms and busts, repression of turbulent emotions, and too much freedom of thought contributed to a high state of nerves. Finally, “the rapidity with which new truths are discovered, accepted and popularized in modern times is a proof and result of the extravagance of our civilization.”

Coca-Cola emerged from this turbulent, inventive, noisy, neurotic new America. It began as a “nerve tonic” like many others marketed to capitalize on the dislocations and worries of the day. After surviving an early history rife with conflict and controversy, this lowly nickel soft drink became so much a part of national life that by 1938 it was called “the sublimated essence of America.”

The description is still apt. Coca-Cola remains emblematic of the best and worst of America and Western civilization. The history of Coca-Cola is the often funny story of a group of people obsessed with putting a trivial soft drink “within an arm’s reach of desire.” But at the same time, it is a microcosm of American history. Coca-Cola grew up with the country, shaping and shaped by the times. The drink helped to alter not only consumption patterns but attitudes toward leisure, work, advertising, sex, family life, and patriotism. As Coca-Cola continues to flood the world with its determinedly happy fizz, its history assumes yet more importance.

During the late 1800s, however, no one, including the inventor of Coca-Cola, had such grand visions. Coca-Cola was just one in a flood of other patent medicines foisted upon the public by hopeful marketers during the golden age of quackery.


Clever promoters made fortunes in patent medicines.* Popular since the Declaration of Independence, these nostrums were peddled by the pioneers in the field of advertising. Patent medicine ads paid for the rapid growth of the American newspaper, whose columns, even before the Civil War, were half filled by their claims. The period after the war saw an exponential growth in the industry, due partly to wounded veterans who had acquired a self-dosing habit.

There were also other reasons for the spectacular postwar success of patent medicines. The railroad, steamship, telegraph, and other communication revolutions made a national and even international market increasingly viable. Waves of immigrants brought new consumers to the country. The American population grew from fifty million in 1880 to ninety-one million in 1910—and eighteen million of those were immigrants. The newcomers did not have much money, but they would often venture a dollar for a “cure.”

Another reason for the boom in self-dosage was that the medical profession had not caught up with the industrial revolution. Many doctors killed as many patients as they cured, so cheap nostrums sometimes provided a safer alternative. Furthermore, there were few doctors in rural areas, forcing the country folk to use patent medicines. Finally, patent medicines were often taken to relieve the symptoms of overeating and poor diet, which went hand-in-hand. Remedies for upset stomachs were the most common class of medicament during the late nineteenth century, which is not surprising, given the starchy diets and heavy meat consumption. Part of Coca-Cola’s appeal to Asa Candler, for instance, was that it was supposed to relieve indigestion.


By the 1880s and 1890s, the amount spent on advertising such tonics and concoctions reached stunning proportions. St. Jacob’s Oil spent $500,000 in advertising in 1881. By 1885, some half-dozen nostrum makers were spending over $100,000 annually on ads. Ten years later, Scientific American announced that some drug advertisers were spending a million dollars a year, adding that the creator of Carter’s Little Liver Pills “cannot spend the money he is making” and that “judicious advertising has made it possible for . . . W. T. Hanson Company [to spend] $500,000 on Pink Pills for Pale People.” One promoter noted that “without advertising, I might have made a living, but it was advertising that made me rich, and advertising a very simple commodity at that.”

The first national trade magazine for advertisers, Printer’s Ink, was launched in 1888, just two years after the invention of Coca-Cola. In its fifty-year retrospective issue, the magazine credited the patent medicine industry with first recognizing the importance of trademarks and ubiquitous advertising, adding that “it was not until the twentieth century had fairly begun that manufacturers as a whole were inclined to listen to the broad proposition that advertising as such was a potentially profitable sales tool.” One of the reasons that patent medicines could afford such extravagant advertising, of course, was their remarkable profitability. For a dollar, a manufacturer often sold a bottle that cost less than a dime to produce. It was easy for him to see the wisdom of spending another ten cents a gallon on advertising. He had no major capital investment, little overhead, and few employees.

Besides, he knew that, without extensive ads, few would buy his medicines, which were not essential products. He had to be a salesman. No wonder the nostrum peddler dominated advertising expenditures during the Gilded Age. Patent medicine makers were the first American businessmen to recognize the power of the catchphrase, the identifiable logo and trademark, the celebrity endorsement, the appeal to social status, the need to keep “everlastingly at it.” Out of necessity, they were the first to sell image rather than product. At the same time, the stodgy producers of dry goods or sewing machines, with substantial capital investment and less of a margin, didn’t see the need to advertise. It was beneath their dignity, a waste of good money. People needed what they had to sell, and, if they advertised at all, it was simply to list their prices. Besides, the outrageous nostrum ads were giving advertising a bad odor, as Printer’s Ink pointed out: “Most patent medicine advertising was shamefully and flagrantly disreputable in its fake selling claims. Absolute remedial powers for cancer, consumption, yellow fever, rheumatism and other afflictions were widely claimed for preparations that had no efficacy for even the mildest ailment.”

The torrent of ads was not confined to newspapers, however. The cure-all makers flooded the marketplace with all kinds of novelties in order to keep their trademarks highly visible. They specialized in items that got repeated use, such as clocks, calendars, matchbooks, blotters, pocket knives, almanacs, cookbooks, mirrors, or cards. Every time a consumer wanted to know the time or date, light a cigar, or look up a recipe, he or she was confronted with a reminder that Pale Pink Pills were good for the blood or that Coca-Cola relieved fatigue and cured headaches.

Meanwhile, outdoor advertisers strove to outdo one another. Men with sandwich signs walked stiffly by on busy sidewalks. Banners were strung across Main Street. At night, the bill poster plastered every available surface with advertisements, layering over a competitor’s work of the night before.

Sign painters were dispatched to paint huge trademarks where travelers were most likely to let their eyes wander. We tend to think of the Victorian era as a gracious period in which nature was unspoiled, but it wasn’t unusual for a patent medicine advertiser of the era to clear-cut an entire mountainside so that he could erect a mammoth sign for Helmholdt’s Buchu, visible from a train window.

In May of 1886, the very month that Coca-Cola was invented, one writer vividly described the desecration of the landscape, saying that a traveler might admire “the undulating country, breathing Spring from every meadow and grove and orchard”—that is, “if he could see a single furlong of it, without the suggestion of disease.” It was not enough, he continued, that fences and sheds were defaced. “Enormous signs are erected in the fields, not a rock is left without disfigurement, and gigantic words glare at as great [a] distance as the eye is able to read them.” Viewing “sign overlapping and towering above sign,” the revolted traveler “turns away, shuddering, from the sight.” Consequently, the critic concluded: “We cannot complain if the intelligent stranger from foreign lands should, instead of ‘the scenery,’ write ‘the obscenery of America.’” One enterprising nostrum maker even offered to help pay for the Statue of Liberty, which was completed in 1886, in return for using the base as a gigantic advertisement.

William James, psychologist and philosopher, reacted violently to newspaper ads when he returned to the U.S. after several years abroad: “The first sight of the Boston Herald . . . made me jerk back my head and catch my breath, as if a bucket of slops had suddenly been thrown into my face.” In 1894, he wrote a scathing letter to the editor of the Nation in which he spluttered in outrage at “this truly hideous feature of our latter-day life,” complaining that “this evil is increasing with formidable rapidity. . . . Now [these advertisements] literally form the principal feature of our provincial newspapers, and in many of the ‘great dailies’ of our cities play a part second only to the collective display of suicides, murders, seductions, fights, and rapes.”

James tellingly added that “if a justification of these advertisements be sought, absolutely nothing can be alleged save the claim that every individual has a right to get rich along the lines of his own inventiveness.” Most Americans were willing to put up with fraud and hype in the name of individual rights and democracy, particularly if there was money to be made. Even a scoundrel was admirable, if he was rich enough.


The patent medicine tycoons, along with industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt, stood at the apex of a new social order. By 1890, there were over four thousand American millionaires, and the number was growing rapidly. Their greatest problem, with no income or corporate tax, became not how to make money but how to spend it. The millionaire was the envied hero of the age, and the great new American religion had a fat dollar sign in front of it. Carnegie himself was busy spreading what he called the “Gospel of Wealth.” Russell Conwell, a Philadelphia clergyman and the first president of Temple University, made a tidy living by delivering his “Acres of Diamonds” speech over three thousand times, explaining that God loves those who produce wealth. “I say that you ought to get rich,” Conwell told his audiences. “To make money honestly is to preach the gospel.”



    “A ripping good story of more than a soft drink or a company, this book is about the whole of America. It may be the greatest American story ever.”
    —New York Observer

    “Marvelously entertaining history.”
    —Los Angeles Times

    “In For God, Country & Coca-Cola, Mark Pendergrast has written an encyclopedic history of Coke and its subculture, and used Coca-Cola as a metaphor for the growth of modern capitalism itself. His research and storytelling skills are prodigious.”
    —Washington Post

    “Behind the glitz and fanfare, the bubbly brown beverage has had a tortured and controversy-filled history. It is meticulously chronicled in For God, Country & Coca-Cola.”
    —Wall Street Journal

    “A meticulously researched history.... [Pendergrast] aggressively sets the record straight about the birth of Coke, shattering company myths.”
    —New York Times Book Review

On Sale
May 14, 2013
Page Count
560 pages
Basic Books

Mark Pendergrast

About the Author

Mark Pendergrast is an independent scholar who brews a fantastic cup of coffee. He is the author of many books, including For God, Country and Coca-Cola. He lives in Vermont

Learn more about this author