By Dennis Smith
On an early May day in 1886, an Atlanta chemist named John Pemberton walked down Marietta Street carrying a quart whiskey bottle bearing a hand-lettered label identifying the contents, Coca-Cola syrup. His destination was Jacob’s Drug Store, and the soda fountain of Willis Venable. Venable mixed a glass and declared it good enough to try it with his customers. He added the Coca-Cola syrup to a receptacle in his fountain near those of popular Northern drinks, Moxie and Hires Root Beer. The tide of the Kola Wars was about to shift strongly in favor of the South.
One of Pemberton’s partners, Woolfolk Walker, put up Coca-Cola in Hutchinson bottles the next year, using a second-hand bottling apparatus in a shed behind the laboratory at 107 Marietta Street.
Pemberton was a better chemist than a businessman. In the 1880’s he had partners in various enterprises and often started a new firm without closing out the affairs of the old. The result was clouded ownership of formulas and trade names, including Coca-Cola. One of Pemberton’s partners, James C. Mayfield, described it as “a thunderbolt” when Pemberton informed him the name Coca-Cola was given to Asa Candler in a settlement over his sons’ debts. Pemberton advised Mayfield he could still use the Coca-Cola formula and sell it under another name. Mayfield chose the name “Yum Yum,” after the character in Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, which had just played Atlanta.
“Yum Yum” as a brand was short lived. Mayfield briefly used “Koke” and other names before settling on “Wine Coca.” A stock company was formed, and sales of Wine Coca rose shoulder-to-shoulder with Coca-Cola in the 1890s.
In 1895, the world came to Atlanta for the Cotton States Exposition where James C. Mayfield introduced a new drink. Mayfield’s Celery Cola was based on Pemberton’s kola formula with the addition of celery seed extract.
Following his divorce in 1896, Mayfield’s ex-wife Caroline made a career out of selling variations of Pemberton’s formula to bottlers across the South. She later operated under the name Diva Brown, calling herself “The Original Coca-Cola Woman.” She was alternately described in the press as “a successful woman of the South,” and “a fake and a humbug.” She established a syrup factory in Birmingham in 1909, selling her drink under the name My-Coca. Bottles and advertising bore Diva Brown’s image and the claim “Made from The Original Coca-Cola Formula.” Asa Candler testified in the court case that decided that Diva Brown’s formula was the original Coca-Cola formula and she had the right to use and sell it.
Other kolas joined the fray. Huntington, Indiana, Doctor George McLin’s Kolatona was bottled in twenty Midwest cities in the 1890s. However, the strongest market was in the South. New South cities like Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, and others became centers of soft drink manufacturing and home to national brands. New Bern, North Carolina druggist, Caleb Bradham, introduced Pepsi-Cola in 1898 and the drink soon saturated the market from Georgia to Virginia. James C. Mayfield made Birmingham headquarters for his Celery Cola in 1899 and within months had expanded his market across the country to California, North to Canada, and South to Cuba.
Lee Hagan, himself a bottler of Coca-Cola in the 1880’s, introduced his Afri-Kola in Atlanta in 1898. Afri-Kola quickly spread across the South and Southwest. Columbus, Georgia, based Chero-Cola rivaled sales of Coca-Cola in the East for a decade and matched Coca-Cola town for town in Georgia.
The success of the well-advertised Coca-Cola spawned hundreds of imitators. Some of these were simply commercial kola syrup put up under a local bottler’s private label. Others were proprietary formulas sold under a registered trademark. Atlanta alone had dozens of brand name and proprietary formula drinks. In addition to Asa Candler’s Coca-Cola, they were drinking Daniels Koko-Kolo, Venable’s Coca-Cola, and Brown’s Coca-Cola. Among the Southern drinks that were sold nationally were: Koca Nola, Rye-Ola, Wiseola, Mint Kola, and Taka-Kola. Even Celery Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and Afri-Cola had imitators nipping at their heels. Northern kola brands advertised nationally included Coke-Ola and Toca-Cola.
While kola drinks led the way, other flavors were not far behind. Red Rock and Cascade Ginger Ales were shipped in boxcar loads from Atlanta to wholesale grocers and distributors across the country. They were also bottled locally in cities and towns across the US, often as a sideline to Coca-Cola or other bottler’s flagship cola drink. Richmond, Virginia, based Indian Rock Ginger Ale was a sideline for many Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola bottlers.
Another soft drink that challenged the kola mold was a fruit flavored drink called Bludwine, based in Athens, Georgia. Bludwine was a successful sideline for many kola bottlers.
The Coca-Cola Company fought competition on every front. Injunctions were sought in local, state, and Federal courts against firms using similar bottles, labels, and lettering in their advertising. Trademark registrations for similar sounding names like Taka-Kola were opposed at the patent office. The Coca-Cola Company claimed exclusive ownership of the word “cola.” They even claimed a monopoly on the red paint used for their barrels. Local dealers in soft drinks were threatened with lawsuits for selling any drink other than Coca-Cola. There were accounts of storekeepers dragged into the street and beat up by Coca-Cola detectives hired to protect the brand.
Competitors’ responses were varied. Some imitators took the threats seriously and simply went out of business. Others moved to a new location and started up under another name. Some successful bottlers of competing kola drinks were bought out and lured west with the offer of an exclusive Coca-Cola franchise in a new town.
A few successfully fought back against what they called “The Cola Trust.” Memphis-based Gay-Ola was quick to provoke Coca-Cola when it was introduced nationally in 1910. In advertising, Gay-Ola claimed to ship their syrup to over twenty Coca-Cola bottlers who claimed it was better than the original. They offered to send Gay-Ola syrup in unmarked barrels to avoid trouble. When Coca-Cola sued over the claim that Gay-Ola bottles and labels were infringements then Gay-Ola adopted a new bottle design and had it patented in 1914. The headline in the bottler’s trade publications read “Atlanta Company at last smashed in fair fight.” Coca-Cola borrowed the patented bottle idea a year later with their hobble skirt design.
There were other fronts in the Kola Wars. From their beginnings, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks were advertised with general medicinal claims directed at “Brain Workers,” or even claims to relieve specific ailments or pains. The Coca-Cola Company cheerfully paid a patent medicine tax designed to pay for the Spanish American War. After removing the last trace of cocaine a few years later, Coca-Cola sued and won a refund of the war tax paid.
Brewers and saloons who were attacked by temperance forces of the WCTU and Southern religious press fought back claiming those publications were financed by advertising for soft drinks that were more dangerous than alcohol.
The federal government even conducted sting operations requesting samples with detailed instructions so the samples would be incontrovertible evidence in court against the soft drink manufacturers. Birmingham factories for Celery Cola, Rye-Ola, and Wiseola fell victim to this scheme arranged through a New Orleans drug firm. Koca Nola was similarly snared. The first major trial was against Celery Cola in U. S. Federal Court in Birmingham in 1910. Rival Coca-Cola was so concerned about the trial they sent their legal team by overnight train from Atlanta to assist Celery Cola lawyers in their defense. It was not enough. In the words of James C. Mayfield: “They murdered it unjustly.” Coca-Cola lawyers learned enough at the Celery Cola trial to successfully defend their own case the next year in Chattanooga Federal Court.
Following the Celery Cola trial, James C. Mayfield reorganized as the Koke Company of America and established offices and factories across the country. He purchased existing trademark rights to Koke and Dope from local bottlers in Alabama, Tennessee, and Texas, and began advertising nationally. Koke and Dope had long been used as generic terms for kola drinks and bottlers found they had a ready-made market for drinks with those names. The Coca-Cola Company claimed Koke and Dope meant only Coca-Cola and serving another kola drink instead of Coca-Cola was declared a substitution. The case lasted eight years in Federal Courts before a final U. S. Supreme Court decision in favor of Coca-Cola over Koke in 1920.
James C. Mayfield continued selling his kola drink under the name Dope, reintroduced his Celery Cola, and remained successful on a national scale through the 1920’s.
The public backlash against cola drinks opened the market for other flavors. Texas-based Dr. Pepper had long been popular in the Southwest and was able to expand nationally. C. S. Ward’s Orange Crush proved more successful than his first soft drink: Celery-Ade. Lemon and Lime Crush soon followed. Atlanta’s Nu-Mint Company quickly found their Nu-Grape was a bigger seller. New Orleans-based Grapico expanded by franchising bottlers across the South. Orange Whistle, Orange Squeeze, and Orange Smash were worthy competitors to Orange Crush.
After losing rights to the word cola in a 1923 lawsuit with Coca-Cola, the Chero-Cola Company redirected their efforts with a line of fruit-flavored drinks under the trade name Melo. Inspiration struck a year later, and Melo was rebranded Nehi and introduced in a distinctive, larger bottle. Nu-Icy, Ski-Hi, Try-Me and other flavor brands switched to larger bottles in distinctive designs. National brand soft drinks were easily recognized by their design patented bottles in distinctive shapes.
Coca-Cola established “cola” as a generic term.
By the end of World War II, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola were the firms best able to consolidate production and distribution. Small town bottlers closed, and former national brand soft drinks were reduced to regional or even local brands. By 1960, The Coca-Cola Company had introduced design changes and additional sizes to the hobble skirt bottle that served the company for nearly a half century; and in the 21st century will undoubtedly bring about more innovations to a tried and true legend in the beverage business.
Dennis Smith has spent over forty years researching the history and artifacts relating to soft drinks in America. He has scoured many libraries, archives, courthouses, and private collections across the United States seeking first-person accounts and previously unpublished records. With degrees in Archaeology and History, he once wrote a graduate thesis: Soft Drinks and Dopes: Changing Perceptions of Soda Water in America. An avid bottle collector, he has exhibited at bottle shows across the United States. He has written for and been the subject of articles in newsletters and magazines, and written numerous books. He currently is working on additional books regarding soft drink history and culture and will publish additional titles in the near future. Comments and conversation are welcome by mail, email, or through his website: kolawars.com.