Long before you could call a number to get a guy with a monosyllabic name and a bud-filled backpack to swing by your apartment, there was the Dope Wagon. Like the little sidewalk carts selling Italian ice in Brooklyn or mango chunks in Los Angeles, these iceboxes-on-wheels came through mills in the south, weaving down the factory aisles and past hulking machines with droning and dangerous parts. Non-unionized textile workers pulling endless shifts to reach quotas—small children among them—would take just enough time to buy food, cigarettes, headache cures and “dope” before consuming everything during their meager break.
Though “dope” was understood as a catchall word for a number of sodas in the early 20th century, it referred most explicitly to the king of carbonated beverages: Coca-Cola. With bottling plants all over the south, the drink became a popular choice for the area’s textile workers, and it wasn’t just the proximity that made the product appealing. In its initial 1886 incarnation that debuted 131 years ago today, the recipe for Coca-Cola, which its brewer Dr. John Slyth Pemberton referred to as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage,” called for about four ounces of coca leaf extract for a roughly four-gallon batch of syrup. Some sources suggest that the amount used was five ounces for a gallon batch—either way, enough cocaine to power anyone through writing 87 episodes of The West Wing or all of Return to the 36 Chambers.
The period in which Pemberton came up with his concoction was the beginning of cocaine’s first and only time as a Western medical darling. The coca leaf has for more than a thousand years been a crucial component of South American indigenous religious beliefs and health practices (helping manage fatigue and altitude sickness, acting as an anesthetic during operations, and providing calcium for broken bones, among other uses), but European scientists took interest specifically in the cocaine alkaloid within the leaves for its capacity to stimulate and suppress hunger. After significant effort, in 1855 scientists were eventually able to isolate what was originally known as “erythroxyline.”
A number of European doctors proved cocaine’s potential as a local anesthetic through experimentation that occasionally veered into macabre self-mutilation. In the mid-1880s, Karl Koller, a surgeon and close friend of Sigmund Freud, reported to the Heidelberg Ophthalmological Society his findings from a study wherein he had applied “a cocaine solution to his own eye and then [painlessly pricked] it with pins.”
Self-experimentation also brought, unsurprisingly, ideas for a number of barely peripheral medical uses. Italian doctor and early psychopharmacologist Paolo Mantegazza wrote a treatise on coca after a trip to Peru wherein he remarked that it could be used to treat anything from “a furred tongue in the morning [to] flatulence,” and by the late 19th century there existed products like Burnett’s Cocoaine For the Hair (to help cure dandruff and strengthen locks) and Vin Mariani, a “vitality” and health tonic beloved by Queen Victoria, Popes Leo XIII and Saint Pius X, Thomas Edison, and an elderly President Ulysses S. Grant.
It was seeing Vin Mariani’s commercial success that gave Atlanta’s Dr. Pemberton the idea for his own coca drink: the original version of Coca-Cola, Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He marketed the drink as “a wonderful and delightful remedy […] infallible in curing all who are afflicted” with a whole host of Victorian maladies from dyspepsia (gas) to mental and physical exhaustion (being alive)—not to mention the side benefits of being “a most wonderful invigorator of the sexual organs and [a] cure [for] seminal weakness, impotency, etc.”
Locals were up in arms about the contents of Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, but not for the reason a modern reader might expect. The state of Georgia long had an organized and steadfast temperance movement, which for essentially its whole existence had its goals “intertwined with [those of] black disenfranchisement and subordination”—unsurprising to anyone aware of the use of prohibition as a social control mechanism or even simply aware of the fact that the whole reason the Ku Klux Klan’s presence was “revived in Atlanta in 1915 [was] to defend prohibition.” By the time Pemberton’s beverage went on sale in 1886, Atlanta was on the verge of outlawing alcohol citywide. Under the threat of temperance campaigners and impending legislation alike, Pemberton reworked his formula so that the flavor masking the bitterness of the caffeine and coca was not wine, but sugar. Pemberton and a few friends drew up a now-iconic font for their new “temperance” drink, and Coca-Cola was born.
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Cocaine consumption nearly quintupled between 1890 and 1903, being taken up by those “outside the middle-aged, white, professional class.” Its prevalence among laborers and sharecroppers is attributable to its use being encouraged—and often directly supplied—by employers, who felt justified by publications like the Medical News claiming that cocaine made African Americans “impervious to the extremes of heat and cold.” Its use spread among laborers of all races, but fears about the growing numbers of users were guided and stoked by white supremacists to create a panic that, as the Atlanta Constitution put it in 1901, focused on the claim that the “use of the drug among negroes is growing to an alarming extent.”
The New York Times quoted a doctor speaking about “a series of experiments on cocaine administered hypodermically” to African Americans: “Sexual desires are increased and perverted, peaceful negroes become quarrelsome, and timid negroes develop a degree of ‘Dutch courage’ that is sometimes almost incredible. A large proportion of the wholesale killings in the South during recent years have been the direct result of cocaine, and frequently the perpetrators of these crimes have been hitherto inoffensive, law-abiding negroes. Moreover, the negro who has once formed the habit, seems absolutely beyond redemption. […] A very few experimental sniffs of the drug make him an habitué—he is a constant menace to his community until he is eliminated.”
His words are emblematic of the true purpose of the legal clampdown on cocaine, which began with Georgia itself in 1902. Violence against African Americans spiked as wild tales of drug-fueled crimes spread through southern newspapers. White-led race riots cropped up across the South and police responded by adopting the use of heavier caliber handguns—“so as to better stop a cocaine-crazed black person.” They were advised to shoot first when suspected to be facing someone on cocaine after a rumor spread that cocaine gave African Americans superhuman accuracy with firearms.
That same 1901 article in the Atlanta Constitution mentioned a possible culprit for the cocaine “epidemic”: “It is stated that quite a number of the soft drinks dispensed at soda fountains contain cocaine, and that these drinks serve to unconsciously cultivate the habit.” Rumors only became more frenzied as Coca-Cola made its way out of the segregated whites-only soda fountain space and into the mass-market space via their trademark glass bottles in 1899; Coke responded to the white public’s discomfort by ceding any attempts to even sell to the African American market to other beverages, like Pepsi, until 1950.
By the time the Atlanta Constitution was perpetuating its range of specious claims, the soda’s syrup had already been adjusted to have markedly less cocaine than was called for by Pemberton’s original formula. Even as early as the 1890s, it contained only a trace of coca leaf extract, reportedly three drams where there used to be four ounces, and it was even then only included to protect the integrity of the soda’s namesake. Regardless, then-manager of Coca-Cola, Asa Griggs Candler, was not interested in any sort of controversy and chose in the early 20th century to completely swap out the cocaine for yet more caffeine and sugar, making the dope-free dope we know today.
That’s not to say that modern Coca-Cola is free of coca leaf extract—the company still remains insistent that its name reflects its ingredients. It’s just that now, and ever since 1903, the leaves are stripped of their cocaine at the Stepan Chemicals plant in New Jersey, which remains to this day the only DEA-authorized commercial entity in the U.S. allowed to import coca leaves. The crude cocaine extract, a byproduct of processing up to 588 metric tons of dried coca leaf a year (coming largely from Peru), is sold to Mallinckrodt Inc., which purifies it into a chemical used as a local anesthetic by ENT and eye specialists—one of the initial purposes identified by the self-experimenting European doctors of the 1880s. It’s hard to believe but in some strange way, when Karl Koller poked himself in the eye, he was looking into the only medical future of cocaine.
Coca-leaf Coke art by Gastón Ugalde.