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