New Coke and the Battle for the South: 30 years Later

Copyright Molly Block

Copyright Molly Block

For every commercial product that becomes an essential part of American life, there are thousands of others that get relegated to the dustbin of history.  Sometimes, as today’s image of the Dulitz Building in Galveston, Texas by Molly Block shows, some products simply fade with time.   But what happens when an established product tries to reinvent itself into something new?  That happened 30 years ago today, when Coca-Cola reformulated its classic soft drink into what was colloquially known as “New Coke.”

By the 1980’s, Coca-Cola had been steadily losing market share for decades, decreasing from a high of 60 percent just after World War II to less than 24 percent by 1983.  One major factor in the decline was Pepsi-Cola’s successful marketing campaigns towards a younger demographic.  Coca-Cola launched a secret taste testing project with a new, sweeter, more Pepsi-like version of Coke.  The new formula overwhelmingly beat Pepsi and the existing Coke formula, however, about 10-12 percent of taste testers experienced anger and alienation over the new formula, saying they might stop drinking Coke altogether if it was reformulated.  The change continued, however, just in time for the 100th anniversary of Coke in 1985.

Pepsi executives managed to smuggle a six-pack of the new beverage and saw the new formulation as a real threat.  Pepsi quickly took out a full-page ad in The New York Times declaring victory in the “Cola Wars.”  The Coke PR machine moved into overdrive.  Workers renovating the Statue of Liberty were the first Americans given cans to take home and thousands of free cans were given out in Washington D.C.’s Lafayette Park.  The results were promising, Coke sales were up 8 percent over the previous year.  There was still one area of the country Coke needed to win over: the South.

Coke had always been a southern drink.  It was developed in 1885 by John S. Pemberton, a confederate Civil War veteran.  His brother, General John C. Pemberton, famously surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant in 1863.  John S. Pemberton invented Coke in Columbus, Georgia as a patent medicine to combat alcoholism in civil war veterans, as well as an epidemic of “nervous prostration” in high-strung southern ladies.  Coca-Cola had been headquartered in Atlanta since the 19th century, and it was southerners who fired the first shots against the reformulated drink.  According to Oliver Thomas’ 1986 book, The Real Coke, The Real Story, many southerners viewed the change through the prism of the civil war.  In Houston, ads for New Coke were booed when they appeared on the scoreboard.

New Coke continued to do well in the rest of the country, but protests continued into the summer in the south, with bottles being emptied in the streets.  Coke had a bigger problem, though–it’s bottlers.  On June 23, several bottlers took their concerns to Coke executives in a private meeting.  On July 11, Coke executives announced the return of the original formula.  Sen. David Pryor (D-Arkansas), announced on the the floor of the U.S. Senate that it was “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.”

Old Coke was rechristened ‘Coca-Cola Classic.’  The ‘classic’ label was kept until 2009.  New Coke kept the name Coca-Cola until 1992, when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.  It was discontinued in 2002.  Coca-Cola Classic was outselling both New Coke and Pepsi by the end of 1985.  Old Coke had been gone for only 77 days.


150 Years Later: William Seward’s Very Bad Week

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

Copyright Andrew B. Conrad

The Civil War Sesquicentennial is coming to a close.  Much as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln came to symbolize the end of the Civil War, so too does the remembrance of Lincoln’s death provide a capstone to the anniversary observances of America’s bloodiest war.  The impact of Lincoln’s death has been discussed by various media outlets, including this month’s National Geographic.  Lincoln’s assassination was just one cog of a wider plan to kill the president, vice-president, and secretary of state in one night.  When his would-be assasin cam knocking on his door, Secretary of State William Seward had already had a rough week.  Seward, a native New Yorker, is immortalized in this prominent statue in New York City’s Madison Square Park.  Seward, a staunch abolitionist who came close to receiving the Republican nomination for president instead of Lincoln in 1860, is said to be the first New Yorker honored with a statue in the city.

Seward’s bad week started during a carriage ride on April 5 on Vermont Avenue in Washington D.C. with his daughters. The carriage door was not tightly closed and kept flying open.  The coachman dismounted to shut the door and the horses began to run away with carriage.  Seward attempted to jump from the carriage and rein in the horses, but the heel of his shoe caught the carriage and threw him face-first onto the ground.  By the time the carriage was stopped, with the girls safe and sound, Seward was being carried home with a broken arm and a broken jaw.  The broken jaw required a metal splint and bed rest for a number of weeks.

On the evening of April 14, a man arrived at Seward’s home on Lafayette Square.  The man claimed to be from the pharmacy with medicine that needed to be delivered to Seward himself.  The butler let the man into the house, at which point he made his way upstairs and forced his way into Seward’s bedroom.  The stranger was on no errand of mercy, he was Lewis Powell, a former Confederate soldier wounded at Gettysburg.  Powell was stopped by Seward’s son and Assistant Secretary of State, Frederick, who refused to let the man come any closer.  The would-be assasin carried a 1858 Whitney revolver and fired it at the young Seward.  The revolver misfired, but Powell managed to club Frederick over the head and advance into Seward’s room.  The revolver was damaged beyond repair, however, so Powell drew a silver handled Bowie knife and sprang on the defenseless secretary of state, slashing at his throat and face.  The splint kept the blade from cutting Seward’s jugular, thereby saving his life.

Sergeant George F. Robinson and Seward’s son Augustus, himself an army officer, attempted to pull Powell off of Seward.  Seward by this time was on the floor behind the bed where Powell could not reach him.  Powell stabbed Robinson, Augustus, and Seward’s 20-year-old daughter, Fanny before Augustus managed to draw his pistol.  Powell bounded down the steps and headed for the front door.  A telegraph messenger named Emerick Hansel,, in the wrong place at the wrong time, arrived as Powell was making his escape.  Powell stabbed Hansell in the back, causing him to fall on the floor.  Powell yelled “I’m mad!  I’m mad!” before running outside to his getaway horse.

Having been abandoned by his co-conspirator, David Herold, Powell was left in a Washington D.C. he knew very little about.  He wandered the city for a few days before being captured.  He was executed in July.  Powell had not managed to kill anyone, but the consequences to the people involved were devastating.  Seward carried the scars of the attack on his face for the remainder of his life.  Frederick remained in a coma for two months as a result of the revolver blow to his head.  Seward’s wife, Frances Adeline, believed her son Frederick would die.  Her heightened state of anxiety is believed to have contributed to the heart attack that killed her in July.  Emerick Hansel, the unfortunate telegraph messenger, remainder paralyzed for life after the attack.

Seward continued as secretary of state for Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson.  In 1867 he successfully negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million–2 cents per acre.  The decision was known as “Seward’s Folly” at the time, but Seward correctly realized it was his greatest achievement, but that it would “take the people a generation to find out.”  Alaska became a state in 1959.

The Madison Square Park sculpture was made in 1873, the year after Seward’s death, by New York sculptor Randolph Rogers.  More than 250 subscribers, Ulysses S. Grant among them, contributed to the monument’s $25,000 cost.

High Bridge and Civil War Memory

Copyright NG71

Copyright Flickr User NG71

The 150th anniversary remembrances of the American Civil War are winding down this month.  For the last five years, the United States and it’s citizens, in a myriad of ways, have commemorated the conflict that claimed the lives of more than 620,000 people and ended the institutionalized enslavement of African-Americans in the United States once and for all.  The 150th anniversary commemorations particularly relevant to myself as I spent a good deal of that time working on the documentary Dixie, which explores the sociological history of the Confederacy’s anthem and the ways in which the Civil War continues to shape the lives of Americans.  People often think of the political and social changes wrought by the Civil War, but the most dramatic change was to the landscape of the South.  Today we look at a bit of that landscape, a bit of the antebellum landscape that remains 150 years later: High Bridge near Farmville, Virginia.

High Bridge was originally part of a Southside Railroad line between Petersburg and Lynchburg.  The bridge crosses over the Appomattox River.  The 20 piers of the structure included nearly four million bricks.  The bridge was completed in 1852, just nine years before the beginning of the Civil War.  In 1865, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated westward after abandoning Richmond, Lee knew lines of pursuit needed to be cut if his army was to survive.  High bridge was capture by Union forces on April 6.  Confederate forced managed to take the bridge and capture 800 Union prisoners.  The following day, Union reinforcements launched a counterattack and dislodged Confederate forces from the bridge.  Confederate troops set fire to the bridge as they retreated, but were unable to destroy it.  The intact bridge kept the Union Army in close pursuit of Lee, who turned his forces towards Appomattox Court House, where he would surrender on April 9.

High Bridge’s strategic value to the Union kept it from being destroyed, but much of the South was not so lucky.  Atlanta, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond were all severely damaged.  The devastation of the landscape remained a physical reality for generations of southerners.  Southern rail lines were heated by Union troops and then twisted into loops resembling bowties.  These so-called “Sherman’s neckties” could still be seen in the south decades later.

The Southside Railroad was rebuilt by former Confederate general William Mahone after the war, part of a what became the Atlantic, Mississippi and Ohio Railroad.  The bridge became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982.  The Norfolk Southern donated the bridge and rail land to the State of Virginia, which became High Bridge Trail State Park in 2008.  The renovated bridge, with the walking and bike path pictured above, opened on the 147th anniversary of the battle: April 6, 2012.  The state park should ensure that this once lost piece of Civil War history will be preserved for years to come.  A bit of the past shaping the future.