|Author(s):||Kemp, Kathryn W.|
|Reviewer(s):||Winpenny, Thomas R.|
Published by EH.Net (January, 2003)
Kathryn W. Kemp, God’s Capitalist: Asa Candler of Coca-Cola. Macon:
Mercer University Press, 2002, Pp. 294. $35.00.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas R. Winpenny
With little more than a 1950 biography written by a family member, an entry in
the Dictionary of Georgia Biography, and inclusion in some journalistic
histories of Coca-Cola, perhaps it is time for a full length biography of Asa
Candler, the prominant figure in the international cola colossus. To that end
Kathryn Kemp plunged into the Candler papers in the Woodruff Library at Emory
University and the Candler papers in the Coca-Cola Company Archives to generate
a 294 page story of Asa’s life. Three members of the Georgia State History
Department read the manuscript and offered comments and suggestions. It seems
likely that they started this project as dissertation advisors.
Asa was the eighth of eleven children born to Samuel and Martha Candler in 1851
in the hills of Carroll County, Georgia. This northwest region of the state was
famous as the site where gold was discovered in the 1830s. “Country boy” Asa
spent his youth in the Primitive Baptist Church, but later moved with his
family into the Methodist Church. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the
Methodist Church of the late nineteenth century in rural Georgia was arguably
as conservative, straight-laced, and evangelical as the modern Methodist Church
is liberal and leaning in the direction of a host of radical causes. One should
not be mistaken for the other. This Methodist involvement meant church on
Sunday coupled with a strict dose of sabbatarianism and midweek services.
Furthermore, Asa’s older brother and closest advisor Warren became a Methodist
bishop. Not surprisingly, Kathryn Kemp contends that this stern religious
influence shaped Candler’s character, at least until the last decade of his
life when a few romantic flings generated chaos.
As a businessman, Asa was religiously entrepreneurial and apparently successful
in most things he tried. Operating a drugstore in Atlanta with Marcellus
Hallman in 1880, he bought out Hallman in 1881 and managed to survive a fire
that destroyed his inventory in 1883. Five years later he invested $500 in
Coca-Cola, a new drink invented by Atlanta druggist John Pemberton; and, to use
a trite phrase, the rest is history.
While it would be logical to imagine that the rest of Candler’s business career
was totally consumed with the rise of America’s first soft drink to enter the
national market, this is not the case. Kemp points out that as early as 1890
Asa invested in a street railway in Atlanta, and later established his own
commercial bank. Candler developed a great personal interest in skyscrapers and
thus urban real estate, and ultimately owned a number of these towering
structures in many of the leading cities of America. When Georgia cotton
growers were threatened with financial ruin, Asa was moved to guarantee loans
— and earn some interest. At the same time, the soda business did provide a
number of time-consuming challenges. For example, the appearance of endless
“look alike” and “sound alike” products required litigation to drive them from
the marketplace. A belief in the importance of advertising led to a promotional
budget that reached $1,000,000 annually by 1911. An aggressive application of
the new Food and Drug Act led to a battle with the federal government that
lasted from 1909 (when a shipment of syrup was seized) until 1918 when a
negotiated settlement led to Coca-Cola changing its manufacturing procedures.
(Endless rumors regarding the caffeine or cocaine contents of the soft drink
led to myriad allegations that the producers of Coke were “dope dealers”
creating a nation of addicts.)
Philanthropy for Asa meant giving generously to the Methodist Church. This
later translated into gifts to Emory University, amounting to a total of
roughly $7,000,000, so that Emory could serve as an antidote to the spiritual
waywardness of Vanderbilt University.
Politically, Asa was elected Mayor of Atlanta in 1916 at age 65. The citizens
seemed to believe that this industrial magnet would be the answer to the city’s
financial woes. Candler did cut the Atlanta payroll and balance the budget.
Predictably, perhaps, he threw the weight of his office behind sabbatarianism
and the W.C.T.U. Perhaps due to age, Asa’s appetite for politics
never extended beyond the Mayor’s office.
When Candler “got out of business” in 1916, and gave a lot of Coca-Cola stock
to his children, the firm had $27,000,000 in assets and ranked 212 out of the
500 largest industrials in America. (The great global reach of the business was
mostly a later development.) Toward the end of the decade his service to
Atlanta as mayor was also drawing to a close and he turned his attention to
Lucy, his wife for over forty years who was dying of breast cancer. She died in
February of 1919.
This enormously successful businessman and public paragon of virtue, who did
much to create the world’s best known product and trade mark, suffered through
a disastrous last decade (1919 – 1929) during which two failed romances led to
litigation and public scandal. Asa died March 12, 1929.
While it seems helpful to have this narrative account of Asa Candler’s life,
published by Mercer University Press, to add to the historiography of American
business, it would be hard to argue that there is no room for another to
undertake the same task. After almost 300 pages of text, the reader still wants
to know more about the man in question. Could Candler have been as wooden as
Kemp indirectly suggests? Perhaps he was. Was there more to this man than his
arid remarks on stewardship? Kemp concludes with the observation that Asa was
neither a “heartless capitalist” nor a “Christian Saint,” a remarkably safe
observation. The title God’s Capitalist strikes this reviewer as a crude
and crass designation fabricated to catch the eye of a potential buyer. Alas,
my copy was free!
Professor Winpenny publishes in the field of industrial history and the history
of technology. He has a forthcoming book on the history of the Manhattan
|Geographic Area(s):||North America|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: WWII and post-WWII|