Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

Soda’s reputation has fallen a bit flat lately: The all-American beverage most recently made headlines due to an FDA investigation of a potential carcinogen, commonly called “caramel coloring,” used in many soft-drink recipes. This bit of drama follows other recent stories that paint an unflattering picture of the soda industry, including New York’s attempt to ban super-sized drinks, the eviction of soda machines from many public schools, and a spate of new soda-tax proposals. All these regulations are designed to mitigate the unhealthy impacts of Big Soda, such as increasing childhood obesity, in the same way restrictions were slapped on cigarettes in years past.

Faced with all this bad press, it's hard to believe that the "evil" soft drink actually began as a health product, touted for its many beneficial effects. In fact, soda got its start in Europe, where the healing powers of natural mineral waters have been prescribed for hundreds of years. Bathing or drinking the water from these natural spas was thought to cure a wide variety of illnesses. Tristan Donovan, the author of Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, says that the ailments treated with bubbling spring waters constituted a "ludicrously big list," everything from gallstones to scurvy. (In reality, the beverage did little more than settle an upset stomach, without any adverse side effects.)

“If I were going to single out one person as creating the carbonated drink industry, I would give credit to Benjamin Silliman, even though he eventually failed financially,” says Anne Funderburg, the author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains.

“Silliman was a chemistry professor at Yale College, and he wanted to supplement his small paycheck while also doing something altruistic for mankind. Silliman believed that carbonated waters could be used as medicine, so he set up a business in New Haven, Connecticut, selling bottled carbonated water.” Though Silliman had little success selling the drink at his local apothecary, he decided to expand his business, designing a larger-capacity carbonation apparatus and securing investments to open two pump rooms in New York City.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

Left, a Schweppes ad from 1937, more than 150 years after the mineral water company was founded. Right, early carbonated waters were sometimes sold in rounded "torpedo" bottles, forcing them to lie flat so the liquid contents would dampen the cork, preventing it from shrinking.

In 1809, Silliman started selling his soda water at the Tontine coffeehouse and the City Hotel, elegant establishments that catered to an elite clientele (the Tontine was in the same building as the New York Stock Exchange). In addition to their supposedly beneficial products, these early soda fountains were designed to create an uplifting environment, adorned with marble counters and ornate brass soda dispensers. However, Silliman continued to focus on the medical benefits of his soda water, while his competitors recognized that the social aspects of drinking were potentially more appealing.

“People who had better business sense than Silliman set up their pump rooms like a spa: You came to drink your carbonated water, but you hung around reading the free books and conversing with other intelligent people who were also there to drink carbonated water,” says Funderburg. “They understood that you could make a real business out of it, where Silliman treated soda more as a medicine.” Though the servers at Tontine recognized that customers preferred soda water as a mixer, it remained a slow seller, and eventually Silliman was forced out of the industry. Even as Silliman’s company failed, the soda trend was catching, and successful fountains soon popped up in other cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Because carbonated water was still viewed as a health drink, the first soda shops were situated in drugstores and closely linked with their pharmacies. “Part of the reason they became so entwined is that the process of carbonating water and making syrups or flavorings was something pharmacists already had the skill set to do,” Donovan explains. “They were the obvious people to take this on, and they started adding in ingredients they thought were health-providing. Sarsaparilla was linked to curing syphilis. Phosphoric acid was seen as something that could help hypertension and other problems.” Long-standing favorites like ginger ale and root beer were also initially prized for their medicinal qualities.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

In their heyday, soda fountains were elaborately designed places for rejuvenation. Left, the counter at the Clarkson & Mitchell Drugstore in Springfield, Illinois, circa 1905. Via the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Right, an 1894 ad for an ornate fountain produced by Charles Lippincott & Co.

According to Darcy O’Neil, author of Fix the Pumps, pharmacists initially used sweet-tasting soda flavors to mask the taste of bitter medicines like quinine and iron, as most medication was taken in liquid form during this era. Plus, many pharmaceutical tinctures and tonics were already mixed with alcohol, which made even the most pungent medicinal flavors enticing. “Many of the elixirs and tonics contained as much alcohol as a shot of whiskey,” writes O’Neil. “This was popular with both the imbiber and pharmacy. The imbiber could get an alcoholic drink at a fraction of the bar’s price because there were no taxes on alcohol-based ‘medicine.’”

Besides booze, sodas of the 19th century also incorporated drugs with much stronger side effects, including ingredients now known as narcotics. Prior to the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906, there were few legal restrictions on what could be put into soda-fountain beverages. Many customers came to soda fountains early in the morning to get a refreshing and “healthy” beverage to start their day off right: Terms like “bracer” and “pick-me-up” referred to the physical and mental stimulation sodas could provide, whether from caffeine or other addictive substances.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

Acid phosphates like Horsford's, seen in these advertisements from the 1870s, gave many soda fountain drinks a distinctively tart flavor.

Pharmacists were soon making soda mixtures with stronger drugs known as “nervines,” a category that included strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin, and a new miracle compound called cocaine, which was first isolated in 1855. “Cocaine was a wonder drug at the time when it was first discovered,” Donovan explains. “It was seen as this marvelous medicine that could do you no harm. Ingredients like cocaine or kola nuts or phosphoric acid were all viewed as something that really gave you an edge.

“Recipes I’ve seen suggest it was about 0.01 grams of cocaine used in fountain sodas. That’s about a tenth of a line of coke,” he says. “It’s hard to be sure, but I don’t think it would’ve given people a massive high. It would definitely be enough to have some kind of effect, probably stronger than coffee.” While the dosages were small, they were certainly habit-forming, and soda fountains stood to profit from such consistent customers.

Throughout the mid-19th century, soda fountains spread clear across the U.S., and a niche health drink became a beloved American refreshment, capable of competing with the best cocktails in the world. Soda throwers or soda jerks, as they were later called (after the jerking arm movement required to operate the taps), had to be just as skilled as bartenders at mixing drinks; in fact, many bartenders started working at soda fountains once the industry was booming.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

By the early 20th century, soda fountains were an integral part of neighborhood drugstores, such as this counter in the People's Drug Store, in Washington, D.C. pharmacy, circa 1920. Via Shorpy.

By the turn of the 20th century, many Americans had begun to recognize the dangers of serving unregulated medications in such a casual manner. In 1902, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled “They Thirst for Cocaine: Soda Fountain Fiends Multiplying,” which focused on the questionable ingredients in popular drinks like Coca-Cola. However, Donovan says that judging from the small quantities of cocaine in actual recipes, it’s doubtful that there were many soda-addicted fiends.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

In fact, Coke was developed while looking for an antidote to the common morphine addictions that followed the Civil War: Veteran and pharmacist John Stith Pemberton concocted the original Coca-Cola mixture while experimenting with opiate-free painkillers to soothe his own war wounds. The company’s first advertisement ran on the patent-medicine page of the Atlanta Journal in 1886, and made it clear that Coca-Cola was viewed as a health drink, “containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nuts.”

Of course, these were also the properties of your basic uppers: Cocaine is a coca leaf extract, and the African kola nut is known for its high caffeine content. Once the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required narcotics to be clearly labelled, the majority of Coca-Cola’s cocaine was removed, though it took until 1929 for the company to develop a method that could eliminate all traces of the drug.

Though Coke had established a major soda-fountain presence by the late 1890s, the company’s long-term success depended on getting their drink into bottles. “At the time, Coca-Cola didn’t really like the idea of bottled drinks,” explains Donovan. “They thought bottles were dirty, and setting up bottling plants and distribution networks was very expensive, so they were better off just shipping their syrup around.” But in 1899, two entrepreneurs named Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas convinced Coca-Cola co-founder Asa Griggs Candler to give them the exclusive rights to bottle his product. Coke would soon become the greatest success of the bottling movement.

Instead of building their own bottling facilities, Whitehead and Thomas came up with a more clever solution—selling franchises to regional bottlers all over the country. “They divided the U.S. up into small territories and sold Coca-Cola bottling licenses to all these local businessmen. This meant that the company didn’t have to put any money into this huge expansion. Their biggest competitor at the time, Moxie, refused to do this and, ultimately, got left behind,” says Donovan. Additionally, Moxie’s flavor was much more tart than Coke’s, making it an outlier as mainstream sodas came to depend on more sugary recipes.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

Left, early Coca-Cola ads, like this one from 1905, emphasized its enervating medicinal effects on the mind. Right, in 1921, the company promoted its soda fountain drinks with ads that outlined the best way to hand-craft a Coke.

By the end of the 1920s, more Coca-Cola was sold in bottles than served at fountains. And over the next decade, the repeal of Prohibition combined with America’s growing car culture to hasten the demise of the ubiquitous pharmacy soda fountain. “When roadside stands like Dairy Queen started opening up after World War II, they were taking customers away from soda fountains,” says Funderburg. “Americans were spending a lot of time in their cars and moving to the suburbs, so most of the drugstores on Main Street were in decline. Soda fountains were also labor intensive, while retail was moving to a self-serve model.”

Our thirst for carbonated drinks clearly didn’t evaporate along with soda shops: Instead, consumers turned to the convenience of bottled beverages, as Big Soda took over from locally crafted drinks. Following the war, many Americans purchased their first home refrigerators, further bolstering the market for bottled sodas. After being forced to remove their narcotic ingredients, sodas increasingly relied on sugar to hook their customers. And as the soda giants continued to grow, these companies tweaked their recipes to lower overall costs, turning to cheaper ingredients like corn syrup and caramel coloring.

“Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and Moxie all started out as soft drinks that were supposed to have some medical benefit,” says Funderburg. “Nobody worried about sugar in the late 19th century. That was an era when people wanted to be plump; women were supposed to be full-figured back then. Certainly, no one worried about their weight the way we do today.”

Along with new policies that restrict where sodas are sold, our growing awareness of soda’s unhealthy impact is hurting soda sales. Although the carbonated soft drink remains a remarkably American beverage (we consume around 13 billion gallons a year, or a full third of global sales), statistics show a decline in American soda purchases over the last few years.

Medicinal Soft Drinks and Coca-Cola Fiends: The Toxic History of Soda

Through 1950, the ingredients for 7UP included lithium citrate, a mood-enhancer—this ad is from the 1930s.

“Sugar or any kind of sweetener is quite crucial to the flavor of these drinks. Artificial sweeteners got tainted, possibly wrongfully, by their link to carcinogens. So soda has been struggling with the fact that people are distrustful of artificial sweeteners, and—let’s be frank—they don’t taste as good as sugar. The soda industry’s approach is putting a lot of faith into finding natural sweeteners that taste just as good as sugar and have no calories in them. It could be quite a game changer if they do.”

Regardless of whatever “healthy” new recipes these companies come up with, though if history is any measure, they’ll probably turn out to be terrible for you.

Top image: from a Coke advertisement in 1907

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