If you've ever looked into the history of soft drinks in America, you may have noticed that a surprisingly large number of them originated in the South. Coca-Cola, for instance, was created by Dr. John S. Pemberton in Atlanta in 1886. Its archrival, Pepsi, was invented by Caleb Bradham in the late 1890s, in New Bern, North Carolina. Dr Pepper started off in Waco, Texas, in 1885, while latecomer Mountain Dew was created in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1948. Those four beverages—along with other products later released by their parent companies, such as Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, and Sprite—remain among the top-selling soft drinks in America today. A second tier of smaller Southern soda brands are still going strong, too, including Ale-8-One (Winchester, Kentucky, 1902); Barq's Root Beer (Biloxi, Mississippi, 1898); Big Red (Waco, Texas, 1937); Cheerwine (Salisbury, North Carolina, 1917); Double Cola (Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1933); Dr. Enuf (Johnson City, Tennessee, 1949)—and that just gets us through the D's.
So why is it that the sweet, fizzy beverages so many of us guzzle today have a Southern twang to their history? The more I've looked into it, the more I've come to believe that it stems from the region's reinvention of itself following the Civil War, during the New South era—a tumultuous period filled with industrious entrepreneurs, clever pharmacists with cure-all tonics, Bible-banging temperance reformers, craven hucksters, and, of course, a hot southern climate that demanded a constant source of refreshment.
A Tonic for the New South
In the two decades immediately following the Civil War, forward-looking businesspeople, politicians, and newspaper editors advocated replacing the agriculture-centric economy of the antebellum South with a more modern system based on industry and commerce. No city better represented this New South spirit than Atlanta, birthplace of the granddaddy of all soft drinks, Coca-Cola.
Coke's emergence came at a promising time for Atlanta. Located at the intersection of five rail lines, the city emerged as the great distribution hub of the era. By 1900, 150 trains arrived and departed each day, and the flourishing wholesale firms in the "Gate City" linked the distant towns and cities of the South into a single network. Of course, the arrival of so many steam engines, telegraphs, and railroads brought noise, energy, and a new frenetic pace not just to Atlanta but to American life in general. That, in turn, led to rampant complaints of shot nerves, indigestion, and constant headaches.
In response, plenty of hucksters stepped up with products they claimed were cure-alls for such modern-day ailments. They formulated "nerve tonics" and "herbal remedies" that drew on long folk traditions of using roots, barks, and berries to produce medicinal concoctions. They also helped pioneer mass advertising campaigns by launching elaborate traveling medicine shows, filling newspapers with florid ad copy and clever catchphrases to lure in new customers. Many of the compounders of these patent remedies were pharmacists, who blurred the line between legitimate medicine and hokum. And that's where John S. Pemberton comes in.
Pemberton was an Atlanta pharmacist who operated a drugstore in the Kimball House, the city's finest hotel. After going bankrupt in 1872, he turned his energies to experimenting with exotic herbs and plants. Pemberton's early creations included Triplex Liver Pills, Gingerine tonic, and Lemon and Orange Elixir, but his biggest success came with Pemberton's French Wine Coca, a knockoff of a popular tonic called Vin Mariani.
A non-carbonated beverage made from Bordeaux wine infused with coca leaves, which acted as a stimulant and pain reliever, Vin Mariani was sold widely in Europe and across the United States. Pemberton's version added kola nut and the Central American herb damiana to the formula. He advertised it as a cure for nervous disorders, dyspepsia, and impotence—all the ills of life in the most bustling of New South cities.
Soda Fountains and Temperance Drinks
At the same time that pharmacists like Pemberton were compounding their new "medicines," others began to feature a different innovation in their drugstores: the soda fountain. In the 18th century, European scientists had discovered that they could dissolve marble dust in sulfuric acid in pressurized containers and use the carbon dioxide released to create "charged" water that simulated the mineral waters found at spas and hot springs. Entrepreneurs brought soda water to northeastern American cities in the 1830s and 1840s, and it made its way to the South after the Civil War. Soda fountains soon became a mainstay at candy shops and drugstores, offering customers fizzy, refreshing drinks flavored with wines such as claret and sherry, and with fruity syrups tasting of grape and pineapple. And it didn't take long for medicine-peddling pharmacists like Pemberton to discover the lure of the fountain, too.
By the late 1870s, pharmacist Charles Hires of Philadelphia had introduced a fizzy brew he called Hires Root Beer, which promised to "purify the blood and make rosy cheeks." In 1884, homeopath Dr. Augustin Thompson from Lowell, Massachusetts, had the bright idea to combine his bitter root tonic with soda water, relaunching "Moxie Nerve Food" as a bottled drink. By the turn of the century, he was selling more than two million bottles a year. Moxie remained the leading soda in northern states until well into the 20th century. But southerners quickly found their own place in the emerging soft drink market, one positioned at the intersection of patent medicines and soda fountains. Their efforts were accelerated by an even greater force, too—prohibition.
Temperance sentiment had caught fire in the New South, and southern states led the procession of early movers that enacted local prohibition laws far in advance of the 18th Amendment. The state of Georgia, the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune declared in 1885, "is unquestionably more thoroughly saturated with prohibition sentiment than any other State in the Union." That year, Georgia passed a "local option" law that allowed residents to vote their individual counties dry through a referendum. Within a year, 108 of the state's 133 counties had banned alcohol sales.
In November 1885, Atlanta's citizens voted themselves dry by a narrow margin, the first time a large American city had attempted prohibition. Pemberton could see the writing on the wall for his French Wine Coca, and he started working on a "temperance drink" that didn't require wine as a base. He experimented with various combinations of essential fruit oils, along with kola nuts and coca leaves, adding sugar and citric acid to cut their bitterness and sending samples down to the fountain at Jacobs' Pharmacy on Peachtree Street to see how they tasted when blended with soda water.
On May 29, 1886, just weeks before citywide prohibition was set to go into effect, an advertisement in the Atlanta Journal declared, "Coca-Cola! Delicious! Refreshing! Exhilarating! Invigorating!" Pemberton teamed up with several partners to form the Pemberton Chemical Company, and the firm began aggressively marketing its new temperance drink to the newly dry Atlanta market. But other factors helped seal the deal for soda in the South as well.
A Perfect Soda Storm
Pemberton's new product hit the market just as soda fountains were booming. Pharmacies and department stores raced to install ever-larger and more ornate fountains, some boasting spouts with 100 flavors or more. By 1895, 50,000 soda fountains were in operation across the country, and their products had become embedded in the social fabric of the nation. "Soda-water is an American drink," Mary Gay Humphreys declared in Harper's Weekly in 1892. "It is as essentially American as porter, Rhine wine, and claret are distinctively English, German, and French.... The millionaire may drink champagne while the poor man drinks beer, but they both drink soda-water."
Nowhere in the country were soda fountains more popular than in the South, and nowhere in the South were they more popular than Atlanta. "Atlanta has the largest retail trade of soda waters or soft drinks in the United States," the Augusta Chronicle reported in 1907, "and the local output is three times greater than that of any other three cities the size of Atlanta."
When it came to soda fountains, the South had a leg up on the rest of the country for multiple reasons. One was climate. Soft drink sales were largely seasonal, and the warm season in the South lasted several months longer than up North. The piecemeal prohibition of alcohol in the South boosted soft drink sales, too. "One thing is certain," the Atlanta Constitution noted in 1887. "A big and rushing business is done in soda water and temperance drinks in Atlanta every day...and the business has trebled since Prohibition has been in effect."
While Atlanta had done away with its self-imposed prohibition by the end of 1887, temperance fervor remained strong in the Peach State. In 1907, Georgia passed a constitutional amendment instituting statewide prohibition. One by one, other southern states followed—Mississippi and North Carolina in 1908, Tennessee in 1909, Virginia in 1914. While most of the Northeast remained wet, by 1918, Louisiana and Texas were the only southern states where one could still legally buy hard alcoholic beverages.
The Cola Wars Begin
While prohibition laws spelled doom for saloon keepers, soda fountain operators found themselves in the pink as soft drink sales skyrocketed across the dry South. Coca-Cola was an early entrant into this field, but it had no shortage of competitors as pharmacists all over the South—already well versed in compounding herbs and botanicals into flavorful syrups—began formulating their own proprietary fountain drinks.
In 1885, a year before Pemberton created his temperance drink, a pharmacist named Charles Alderton, who was working at Morrison's Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas, came up with a distinctive mixture of 23 ingredients, including fruit syrups and phosphoric acid, which gave his drink a tangy bite. He and the store's owner began selling the syrup to other soda fountains in the area as "Dr. Pepper," a drink that, their ads promised, "aid[ed] digestion and restore[d] vim, vigor, and vitality."
Many of Coca-Cola's competitors had been involved in the early incarnations of The Coca-Cola Company itself. Mark Pendergrast unraveled the bizarrely tangled tale in his book For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, terming it "the most confused, convoluted genesis of a successful corporation that the world could ever have witnessed."
Pemberton had never had a great head for business, and, by the time his temperance drink hit the market, he was not only broke but suffering from stomach cancer and morphine addiction. The pharmacist ended up subdividing the rights to the trademark and the formula for Coca-Cola and selling them several times over the course of the first year, leaving their ownership uncertain. At one point, three separate companies were selling a product called Coca-Cola in Atlanta, and each insisted it owned the rights to the increasingly popular beverage.
Pemberton died in August 1888, and Asa G. Candler, a successful Atlanta druggist, went to work buying up as many of the disputed shares as he could. The chain of title would be argued in the courts for decades, but in the end, Candler's Coca-Cola Company established control over both the formula and the trademark.
But the possession of the recipe wasn't the important thing. The success of Coca-Cola resulted from hustle. Candler recognized early on the importance of marketing in the crowded soft drink field, and he soon gave up his drugstore to focus on his new beverage. He plowed all his early profits back into newspaper advertising and promotional items—signs, novelties, calendars, and coupons for free samples—and he sent a team of "drummers" fanning out across the South to push the drink.
By 1891, almost three-quarters of Coca-Cola sales were made outside of the city of Atlanta, and sales continued to rise, from 35,000 gallons in 1892 to over 76,000 in 1895. Improvements in glass bottles, which, until the turn of the 20th century, were too expensive and breakage-prone for wide-scale distribution, soon took Coca-Cola far beyond the soda fountain. The company developed a network of hundreds of independent bottlers all across the country. They bought their syrup for a dollar a gallon from the parent company, then took the beverage into rural areas that had no soda fountains and created entirely new sales channels through grocery stores and cafés. Over time, the bottle sales of Coca-Cola and its competitors far eclipsed those of soda fountain syrup.
And those competitors were many. J. C. Mayfield, one of the original partners in the Pemberton Medicine Company, set out with his wife, Diva, and started selling versions of the cola drink under the brands "Yum Yum," "Koke," and "Wine Coca." The couple divorced in 1896, and Diva Mayfield—who changed her name to Diva Brown after she remarried—established her own company in Birmingham, Alabama. She began marketing a drink called My-Coca, whose bottles bore a diamond-shaped label declaring the contents "Manufactured from the Original Coca-Cola Formula."
The Real Thing?
By the turn of the century, there were dozens of products on the Southern market that were remarkably similar to Pemberton's original creation, in both flavor and name. There was Koca Nola, Celery Cola, Afri-Cola, Hayo-Cola, Nervo-Cola...you get the picture.
Soft drink historians have tended to label these companies "imitators" or "knockoffs" rather than "competitors," but they weren't always trying to fool customers into thinking they were "the real thing." Many advertised themselves as superior to Coca-Cola in some way. Koca Nola, for instance, splashed the term "dopeless" on its label, an attempt to capitalize on a backlash against coca leaf and the cocaine that drinks made with it were feared to contain—a backlash that caused The Coca-Cola Company to switch to decocainized coca leaves and add caffeine.
Many of Coke's competitors got their start when a pharmacist or retailer grew tired of paying top dollar for Coca-Cola syrup and said, "Fine, I'll make it myself!" One of these was grocer Claud Hatcher of Columbus, Georgia, who started tinkering with soft drink formulas in 1905 after his local Coke rep refused to give him a discount. Hatcher first came up with a variety of ginger ale, which he began selling under the name Royal Crown, and then a cherry- and cola-flavored beverage that he dubbed Chero-Cola. Chero-Cola was sued by Coca-Cola in 1923 and was forced to drop the "Cola" from its name. It rebranded itself as Royal Crown, and, after another court decision in 1944 declared "cola" to be a generic trade word, the firm shifted to the now-iconic name RC Cola.
Most of the soft drink brands launched during the chaotic early era disappeared long ago, but a few have hung on to become regional favorites. In 1922, for instance, two former Chero-Cola employees moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and opened the Good Grape Company, which marketed several different cola-flavored beverages before introducing Double Cola in 1933 (so called because its 12-ounce bottle was twice the size of the standard bottle at the time). In 1917, L. D. Peeler launched the Carolina Beverage Corporation in Salisbury, North Carolina, and a few years later introduced what became its signature product, Cheerwine, a beverage that many in the Piedmont of North Carolina consider the essential accompaniment to a plate of barbecue.
And Then Came Pepsi
The firm that would become Coke's great 20th-century rival emerged out of the froth of the New South soda fountain business, too. In the late 1890s, Caleb Bradham, the proprietor of a pharmacy in New Bern, North Carolina, came up with a syrup formula for his soda fountain that he claimed would relieve dyspepsia and peptic ulcers. In 1902, he trademarked it as "Pepsi," and within a year, he had closed his drugstore to focus on selling the soft drink.
Bradham's firm went bust in the 1920s after he mistimed the volatile sugar market and bought a large quantity just before the price collapsed. The firm's trademarks and recipes ended up in the hands of Charles Guth, the president of the New York–based Loft chain of soda fountains. At the time, Guth was locked in a fierce dispute with Coca-Cola over the price of its syrup, and when Coke refused to meet his discount demands, Guth instead bought the Pepsi-Cola Company and started serving only Pepsi in the Loft fountains.
Pepsi was eventually set up as a subsidiary of Loft Inc., with Walter Mack chosen to be its new president. Mack switched to selling his product in emptied 12-ounce beer bottles, which could be had for cheap since breweries didn't reuse them, and he sold a 12-ounce bottle of Pepsi for the same nickel price as Coke's six-ounce. Pepsi pioneered new forms of advertising, including skywriting and radio jingles, and adopted a corporate strategy based upon a single-minded objective: Beat Coca-Cola. Thus began the fierce corporate rivalry that continues to this day.
That fight eventually moved overseas, as Coca-Cola and Pepsi transformed themselves into multinational behemoths. Back home in the South, fans of old regional brands, like Ale-8-One in Kentucky and Dr. Enuf in Tennessee, have kept their beloved drinks alive, too. Few would claim these days that these sodas cure indigestion or nervousness, and many southerners are more likely to think of Coke as a mixer for their bourbon rather than a substitute. But amid the fizzy bubbles and sugary sweetness, one can still detect the herbal, slightly bitter notes that link our modern-day soft drinks to the patent medicines and temperance zeal of the New South era.
All products linked here have been independently selected by our editors. We may earn a commission on purchases, as described in our affiliate policy.