Caleb Bradham (1867 – 1934)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Born in 1867, Caleb Bradham grew up in Duplin County, North Carolina, and enrolled in 1886 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He later studied at the University of Maryland in hopes of being a medical doctor. But when his father declared bankruptcy, funds soon ran out, and Bradham left medical school.

After he returned to North Carolina, he never lost an interest in health care.  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 featuring the piano and/or the violin playing the latest musical selections. In this place, Bradham invented Pepsi-Cola.

In 1898, Bradham invented Pepsi-Cola out of a concern to keep patrons and to improve their health.  Wanting to have a different soft drink—one without the narcotics so frequently used in others during the time—the druggist experimented with various combinations of juices, spices, and syrups. His customers most liked the taste of his vanilla, rare oils, and kola nut extract-combination. Bradham believed his product aided digestion and had no harmful effects (then it had no caffeine). New Bern residents requested frequently what they soon nicknamed “Brad’s Drink.”

As customer demand increased, Bradham eventually devoted his energies full time 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 U.S. Patent Office and started advertising a “pure, food drink” in the wake of 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 not only in New Bern but also 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 the demand that the soda’s quality and the company’s advertisements produced, Pepsi-Cola Company was one of the first to ship products via motor transport.

The exigencies of World War I, however, cost Bradham greatly. In 1915, the future seemed bright for Bradham.  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 the high 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.  As a result, Bradham and Pepsi-Cola Company could not cover the costs of production. When the sugar market crashed, Pepsi-Cola declared bankruptcy in 1923. Still concerned with people’s health, Bradham returned to his drug store in New Bern as a full-time druggist.

The bankruptcy did not end the life of Pepsi-Cola. First, Craven Holding Corporation of North Carolina bought the company (for $30,000). Then a broker on Wall Street bought it and created the National Pepsi-Cola Corporation. Another bankruptcy took place in 1931, but by 1934 the National Pepsi-Cola Corporation had regained its marketing prowess and has been a sizable corporation ever since.

Before, during, and after his success with “Brad’s Drink,” Bradham exhibited a concern for others and an interest in his community.  Even after the bankruptcy, he maintained the scholarship prize that he had started at the UNC School of Pharmacy in 1902—and did so until 1930.  As an active Shriner (he reached the 32nd degree of the Scottish Rite and held many leadership positions, including provincial grand master of the Order of Colonial Masters of North America and master kadosh of Carolina Consistory No. 3), Bradham participated in numerous charity events in and near New Bern.  He was also a co-founder of the North Carolina Naval Militia, and even reached the rank of captain. While owning and operating a drug store, Bradham served on the Craven County Board of Commissioners and as president of the People’s Bank of New Bern.  

Bradham married Charity Credle of New Bern on January 1, 1901, and they had three children: Mary, Caleb, Jr., and George.  Bradham died from a long-term illness on February 19, 1934, and was buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery in New Bern.