This Day in Jewish History / First Customer Pays for Coca-Cola

There was one mistake Atlanta pharmacy owner Joseph Jacobs would never live down: His decision to sell a one-third interest in Coca-Cola to Asa Candler.

David Green
David B. Green
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Bottle cap from a bottle of kosher for Passover Coca-Cola.
David Green
David B. Green

On May 8, 1886, at the soda fountain in the downtown Atlanta pharmacy owned by Joseph Jacobs, Coca-Cola was served for the first time to a paying customer.

It is universally acknowledged that the man who invented Coca-Cola was John Stith Pemberton (1831-1888), the pharmacist from Columbus, Georgia who returned from the Civil War, in which he was badly wounded, with an addiction to morphine. In 1886, when Atlanta adopted a ban on alcohol sales, Pemberton had to come up with a legal, non-addictive alternative to his popular “French Wine of Coca” drink, which calmed the nerves and deadened pain. When it came time to taste-test a new formula, Pemberton walked a jug of syrup down the street from his lab, at 107 Marietta Street, to Joseph Jacobs’ Pharmacy at the corner of Marietta and Peachtree streets.

Jacobs (1859-1929), of German-Jewish descent, had as a child moved with his family from Athens, Georgia to Atlanta. There he apprenticed with a pharmacist before attending college at the University of Georgia, and afterward the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, from which he graduated in 1877.

After setting up a pharmaceutical laboratory, whose products he would sell around northern Georgia via horse-and-buggy, Jacobs bought an existing drugstore at 2 Peachtree St. in Atlanta’s Five Points section from a man named Walter Taylor. This became the flagship of a mini-empire of 16 pharmacies. A special feature of the shop was its soda fountain, one of only five in the city at the time, run by Willis Venable.

It was Venable who made the mistake (apparently) of adding carbonated water, rather than still water, to Pemberton’s caramel-colored syrup that May day in 1886. The price for a glass was five cents.

The drink was a hit, so Pemberton stuck with the formula. The name, Coca-Cola, as well as the swirly red logo, were both proposed by Frank M. Robinson, a young partner of Pemberton’s who was looking to break into advertising.

In July 1887, Pemberton, ill and in need of money, sold a two-thirds interest. That controlling share would eventually be sold to pharmacist Asa Candler, who owned a store further up Peachtree Street. Nonetheless, when Pemberton died on August 16, 1888, he was bankrupt.

Joseph Jacobs was an astute and respected pharmacist and businessman. He was the first merchant in Atlanta to use pennies, which allowed him to sell a $1 item for 99 cents, and give the customer back change for his dollar. He advertised, he published a journal about pharmaceuticals, and when his competitors tried to pressure suppliers not to sell to him because he was selling at discounted prices, he pursued antitrust suits against them, successfully. When he died on September 7, 1929, hundreds of mourners, including the governor of Georgia, attended his funeral.

There was one mistake Jacobs would never live down, however: His decision to sell a one-third interest in Coca-Cola, which he and several friends shared, to Candler.

In return, Candler agreed to close his pharmacy, with $1,800 worth of drugstore inventory going to Jacobs. Candler and his family sold the company in 1919 to an Atlanta consortium headed by Ernest Woodruff, for $25 million.