Note: This story first appeared in the May-June, 2003 issue of the Gypsy Journal.
Who doesn’t appreciate an ice cold Coca-Cola on a hot summer’s day? It truly is the pause that refreshes, as the old advertising slogan once claimed. On a visit to Vicksburg, Mississippi, we toured the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, where the soft drink was originally bottled.
Atlanta, Georgia pharmacist John S. Pemberton created what would become the most popular soft drink in the world in 1866. First available as a fountain drink, the company distributed the syrup to soda fountains across the South and it became an immediate hit.
The same year the soft drink was invented, Joseph Biedenharn was born in Vicksburg in December, 1866, the eldest of twelve children. Eventually Joseph took over Biedenharn and Brother, the retail confectionary business founded by his father and uncle. He renamed the business the Biedenharn Candy Company.
Coca-Cola could only be had in the cities where the fountains were dispensing it, and while popular with his customers, Biedenharn realized that there was a huge market for the soft drink among rural residents who didn’t have access to a corner drug store or soda fountain. His company was already bottling soda water so it just made sense to explore this new potential market. In the summer of 1894, Biedenharn first bottled Coca-Cola, and the rest is history.
The company rewarded Biedenharn for his ingenuity by granting him the exclusive right to sell their product in the entire state of Mississippi. Later the family secured bottling rights in several cities in Louisiana and Texas.
In the early days, Biedenharn used the bottles that he had on hand, the same ones that he was using to bottle soda water. Those old blob-top bottles were embossed with “Biedenharn Candy Company, Vicksburg, Miss.”
The bottles were sealed with a rubber disk that was pushed into the neck of the bottle and held with a wire. Biedenharn soon discovered that the rubber changed the flavor of the drink after about a week and started searching for an alternative.
In the early 1900s, he switched to straight-sided crown bottles, which preserved the true taste of Coca-Cola. The next problem Biedenharn faced was that there was no uniformity to new bottles. Hand-blown in molds, the color of the glass varied from clear to aqua to differing shades of blue, green and amber. And because of differences in thickness of the glass, bottles could contain either six or seven ounces.
Beginning around 1910, the bottles were machine-made and became more uniform. The new straight-sided bottles were embossed with “Biedenharn Candy Company, Vicksburg, Miss.,” with Coca-Cola in script across the base.
Over time the Coca-Cola Company recognized the need for a standard, distinctive package for their product and mass production made it possible to buy the soft drink in the same bottle from Atlanta to Seattle, and anywhere in between.
The Biedenharn family bottled Coca-Cola in several locations in downtown Vicksburg until 1938, when the new Coca-Cola plant was constructed at 2133 Washington Street. After going through several owners and housing a number of different retail businesses, today the original building where it all began at 1107 Washington Street has been restored and houses the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum.
Here visitors can learn the history of the soft drink and see an impressive collection of early-day bottling equipment and Coca-Cola memorabilia.
One wall of the main room is taken up with examples of bottles used for Coca-Cola over the years, including many souvenir and holiday bottles. The office area features furnishings and displays used by the company in the 1890s.
After you tour the museum, stop in the authentically-restored candy store and treat yourself to an ice cream, a fountain Coke, or a float as you check out the nice selection of Coca-Cola souvenirs available for purchase.
The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum is open every day except New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Saturday and 1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Admission to the museum is $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for ages 6-12 years, and children under 6 are free. For more information, call (601) 638-6514.
The downtown streets in Vicksburg are narrow and parking would be difficult for a large vehicle. Visitors should leave their RV at one of the nearby RV parks and explore the downtown area in their tow vehicle or dinghy.
Thought For The Day – We miss living life while we are busy chasing things we want.