Brad’s Drink: A New Bern Beverage Enjoyed Across the World

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Businessmen want to make profits, to be sure, but they understand that to do so, they must satisfy customers.  In the end, everyone involved in the transaction is pleased.  Caleb Bradham, inventor of Pepsi-Cola, provides a perfect example.  

Born in 1867, Caleb Bradham grew up in Duplin County, North Carolina.  As a University of Maryland medical student, his father declared bankruptcy, funds soon ran out, and Bradham left school and returned to North Carolina.  

He never lost interest in health care, however.  He taught briefly at a private academy in New Bern before enrolling again at the University of Maryland—this time in the School of Pharmacy.  After graduation, he opened Bradham’s Pharmacy in New Bern, where locals loved to frequent and pay a nickel to be entertained by a jukebox.  In this place, Bradham invented Pepsi-Cola in 1898.

The druggist invented the beverage not only to keep patrons but also to improve their health.  Wanting to have a soft drink without the narcotics so frequently used in others, Bradham experimented with various combinations of juices, spices, and syrups.  His customers most liked his vanilla, rare oils, and kola nut extract-combination.  Bradham believed this particular product aided digestion and had no harmful effects (then it had no caffeine).  The formula was soon nicknamed “Brad’s Drink.”

As customer demand increased, Bradham devoted his energies to selling his beverage.  He changed its name to Pepsi-Cola (probably because the drink aided digestion much like pepsin enzyme) and incorporated the company in 1902.  With Bradham as its first president, the corporation had one of the earliest trademarks in the history of the US Patent Office and started advertising a “pure, food drink” after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), when the government determined that the company used no harmful substances.

In its first years, Pepsi-Cola Company grew rapidly, and Bradham created many new jobs for people in New Bern and across the Southeast.  Showing great business savvy and working feverishly, Bradham started selling franchises.  In 1905, there were only two; by 1910, approximately 300 bottlers operated in twenty-four states, and the first Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Convention was held in New Bern.  Under the direction of the innovative pharmacist, the company started a successful advertising campaign featuring women and celebrities and emphasizing the drink’s invigorating qualities.  To meet increased demand resulting from the soda’s quality and the company advertisements, Pepsi-Cola Company was one of the first to ship products via motor transport.

Although his future seemed bright, the exigencies of World War I and government regulation cost Bradham greatly.   In 1915, his soft drink was sold across the Southeast (7 states) and netted $31,346.  When the United States entered the war in 1917 and rationed sugar, Pepsi-Cola production and sales plummeted; sugar rationing prevented Bradham’s company from meeting consumer demand, so he used sugar substitutes that ultimately disappointed customers.  Meanwhile, the government controlled sugar prices (three cents per pound).  After the war, the government lifted price controls, and the cost rocketed approximately 830 percent (28 cents per pound); customers, however, still expected a bottle of Pepsi-Cola to cost five cents.  Consequently, Pepsi-Cola Company could not cover production costs.  When the sugar market crashed, Pepsi-Cola declared bankruptcy in 1923.  The Craven Holding Corporation bought out Bradham’s company and soon merged with Old Dominion Company to form the Pepsi-Cola Corporation of Richmond, Virginia.

Still concerned with people’s health, Bradham returned as a full-time druggist to his pharmacy in New Bern, where he still worked to benefit his fellow man.  He maintained the scholarship prize that he had started at the UNC School of Pharmacy in 1902—and did so, until 1930.  Bradham participated in numerous charity events in and near New Bern, and he co-founded the North Carolina Naval Militia.

Next time you take a sip of Pepsi, remember how Bradham’s hard work, innovation, and humanitarian concern helped introduce motor transport of goods in the United States and created satisfied customers and jobs.