In my 19 years in the Coca-Cola Archives, I must have said the line: “Coca-Cola was first served on May 8, 1886 at Jacobs’ Pharmacy” thousands of times as I have discussed the history of the drink. 

With the constant repetition, Jacobs’s Pharmacy had become a “thing” rather than a place or store run by a family. This year, for our 130th birthday, I wanted to go a little deeper and introduce you to Dr. Joseph Jacobs, the man who founded Jacobs’ Pharmacy.

Dr. Joseph Jacobs. Credit: Atlanta History Center

A native of Jefferson, Ga., Jacobs studied under Dr. Crawford W. Long, the Jefferson doctor who discovered the use of ether as an anesthetic. Long was instrumental in ensuring Jacobs' acceptance to the University of Georgia. After graduation, Jacobs continued his education at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science before returning to Athens, Ga. to open the Athens Pharmaceutical Company. The growth of Atlanta lured Jacobs to the city, and he moved there in January 1884 and purchased Taylor Pharmacy at Five Points in downtown Atlanta.  

In 1929, Dr. Jacobs wrote an article for Drug Topics, an industry magazine for the pharmacy trade, called “How I Won and Lost an Interest in Coca-Cola.” In this article, Jacobs described the soda fountain in his building.

“On the right-hand side of the entrance was a soda fountain conducted by Willis Venable, who was assisted by his brother, John Venable, and his son Edward Venable, (now one of the leading restaurant keepers in Atlanta.) The fountain enjoyed a wonderful reputation and did a large business. It averaged fully $150.00 a day from the various drinks.” As was the custom of the day, the fountains were often set up on space that was rented from the pharmacy owners. This is the case with Venable and Jacobs.

It's important to keep in mind what pharmacies were like in 1886. They were more like general stores that also dispensed medicine. Open to men and woman, pharmacies were often gathering spaces for people to get the news of the day, pick up their items and enjoy a moment at the fountain. Jacobs’ Pharmacy was one of the leading pharmacies in Atlanta.

Part of the reason for its popularity was Dr. Jacobs’ innovative business practices. Jacobs was one of the first Atlanta retailers to discount his goods. In an interesting story, the smallest currency used in Atlanta after the Civil War was the nickel. Jacobs saw an opportunity and purchased $300 worth of pennies from the mint in Washington and began to discount items from $1 to .98 cents so he could provide change. The discounts attracted customers but angered competitors to the point that he became the target of threats and lawsuits. Jacobs stuck to his strategy and, as the anger simmered, the penny had come to stay in Atlanta.

As Jacobs’ wrote in his 1929 article, he was once a co-owner of The Coca-Cola Company for a short time. Willis Venable had purchased a share of ownership from Dr. John Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola. With that purchase, Pemberton retained a share but also received a royalty per gallon from Venable. Venable became strapped for cash because he was building a home in Atlanta’s West End. To raise funds, Venable sold his portion of the formula to Jacobs in return for a cash advance. 

At this point, Asa Candler enters the story. Jacobs and Candler were well acquainted as two of Atlanta’s leading pharmacists. Asa even arranged for his son, Charles Howard Candler to work in Jacobs’ Pharmacy so he could learn the trade. Candler expressed an interest in getting out of the pharmacy business, and Jacobs has told him he knew little of Coca-Cola and wished to dispose of his interest in the product. The two struck a deal where Candler gave Jacobs an interest in a glass factory in exchange for his share of Coca-Cola. Candler, in turn, purchased Pemberton’s portion and soon took total control of the company.

Jacobs Drug Store

Jacobs Drug Store at the junction of Peachtree Street and Roswell Road in the heart of Buckhead, circa 1944. 

"Ater disposing of my Coca-Cola stock to Mr. Candler, I never owned any more of it, which evidences my poor judgement," Jacobs wrote. But that does not due full justice to his success as a business leader. From his single store at Five Points, Jacobs continued to expand his business and became the leading drug store owner in the city. At the time of his death in September 1929, Jacobs owned eight stores in Atlanta. His son, Sinclair Jacobs, also a pharmacist, continued to grow the chain until there were 21 stores in the South. Sinclair sold the chain to Revco Drugs after World War II.

Joseph Jacobs was a member of The Temple and well respected in the community. His son Sinclair was president of The Temple during the 1940s. The family owned a 40-acre estate on Roswell Road north of Buckhead. Sinclair died in 1977 and was survived by his son, Tory, who moved to Miami until his death in 2011.

While the original Jacobs’ Pharmacy location at Five Points is long gone, you can still get a sense of the family by visiting Historic Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta to see the Jacobs’ Mausoleum, one of the first and finest in the city.

So the next time you read or hear the phrase, “Coca-Cola was first served on May 8th at Jacobs’ Pharmacy,” I hope you have a fuller sense of the man.

Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company.