The Women’s Christian Temperance Union rarely backed down from a fight. They spent half a century attacking Demon Rum before Prohibition carried their cause to victory. In 1907, the Cincinnati WCTU launched an attack against another, much stronger enemy than beer or liquor. They voted to challenge the Coca-Cola Company.
At their meeting on Wednesday, 24 July 1907, the WCTU heard a report about the work of Harvey Washington Wiley, known today as the “Father of the Pure Food & Drug Act,” and his efforts to ban “drugged” beverages, especially Coca-Cola. Wiley’s objection to Coca-Cola focused on the caffeine content, as he outlined in a speech reported in the nationally distributed Druggist’s Circular [December 1907]:
“The subject of soft beverages was also touched upon by the Doctor; and he called the meeting’s attention to the fact that there were being sold beverages which were simply mixtures of syrup and caffeine that did not compare with natural products, and the public in general had no knowledge of the fact that caffeine was being consumed.”
Next day, the Cincinnati Post [25 July 1907], reported on the decision of the Cincinnati chapter:
“Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Cincinnati has started a fight against ‘Coca-Cola,’ a beverage sold daily at drugstore fountains to hundreds of children and adults. It is charged the drink contains cocaine, caffeine and alcohol in large proportions, and that one glass of it induces the drinking of five or six additional glasses.”
Coca-Cola seems to have been introduced to Cincinnati in 1899 at the Peebles Grocery soda fountain at 73 West Fourth Street, so it took eight years to land on the WCTU radar.
The WCTU’s attack was hardly robust. They planned to ask religious newspapers to refuse future advertising from the Coca-Cola Company. They also voted to reach out to other WCTU chapters, enlisting them in the campaign.
Cincinnati’s WCTU met twice monthly at the old Cable Company Hall on the northeast corner of Fourth and Elm streets. For many years, the president of the local chapter was Mary Robertson. Her husband, Dr. John Robertson, ran a medical equipment company and was a perennial candidate for various governmental offices on the Prohibition Party ticket. She told the Post:
“’We have not investigated in Cincinnati,’ said Mrs. John Robertson, President of the Central Women’s Christian Temperance Union, ‘but, as Dr. Wiley, head of the United States Department of Agriculture, condemns the drink, we believe it dangerous. The fact that it has been barred from several army posts indicates its ingredients are harmful.”
In taking on this conflict, the Cincinnati chapter lined up behind the national WCTU organization, which acknowledged that Coca-Cola had recently stopped incorporating cocaine into their product. According to Mrs. Martha M. Allen, Superintendent of Medical Temperance for the National WCTU (lower-case brand name appears as in the original):
“Yet even with the elimination of cocaine, coca cola does not seem to be a harmless drink. The chemists whose analyses are sent out by the company manufacturing this beverage, nearly all say it is as harmless as tea or coffee. Yet physicians and druggists have told WCTU workers that they know of people who have become so addicted to the use of coca cola that they could not be restrained from taking it, and its effect upon them was injurious. One case related to me within a day or two was of a lad whose father said he had become worthless in school or anywhere else because of his addiction to coca cola.”
This calumny offended the Coca-Cola Company such that it regularly purchased advertising to counter it. The Cincinnati Post [10 August 1909] featured the following “advertorial” (advertisement disguised as editorial copy):
“Yet people occasionally (not frequently, because most people are properly informed), through ignorance or malice, say that Coca-Cola contains cocaine. This is absolutely and unequivocally untrue. The reports of the world-famous chemists, and even of Government experts, have disproved this malicious falsehood time after time. Yet dishonest competitors of the Coca-Cola Company continue to revive it through the medium of sincere, but hysterical, or totally ignorant, people, whom they have used as mouthpieces.”
The Coca-Cola Company protested, it seems, too much. The beverage actually did contain small amounts of cocaine up until 1903 or thereabout. The USDA’s Harvey Wiley sued Coca-Cola in 1911 on the rather curious claim of false advertising because it did NOT contain any cocaine despite the “coca” in its name. He lost.
In any event, the Cincinnati kerfuffle seems not to have gone anywhere. Coca-Cola remained on tap at Queen City soda fountains. The drink proved so popular that, in 1913, Coca-Cola sued one Mary F. Gildea, proprietor of an Avondale confectionery located at Vine and Erkenbrecher. Mrs. Gildea had created her own fake Coca-Cola to sell at her soda fountain and Coca-Cola shut her down.
We leave you with this happy little poem from a Coca-Cola advertisement of 1906:
“Some people like cocktails, some people like beer,
But the after effect sometimes goes beyond cheer,
While the drink that I like has a flavor that’s fine,
Yet causes no headache like liquor or wine—
It’s cool COCA-COLA—‘IN BOTTLES, FIVE CENTS’—
Say, fellows, it’s splendid, it’s great, it’s immense.”
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities