Coca-Cola wasn't the only soda company to buck the trend for decline in the Depression. Another success story was the lemon-lime drink 7Up. Its creator Charles Leiper Grigg was born in 1868 in a log cabin in Price’s Branch, a tiny hamlet in Montgomery County, Missouri, with a population of just twenty-five people. As a child Griggs became obsessed by mail-order catalogs and the array of wonderful goods on offer within their appealing pages. He was still obsessing about catalogs at the age of twenty-two when he wrote to a St. Louis mail-order company to tell them that their catalog wasn't up to scratch and explained how it could be improved. “If you think you can do better, come to St Louis and do it,” the firm replied. So he did.
Grigg spent the next three decades working in various St. Louis companies. In 1918, he ended up as an advertising executive for Whistle Orange Soda, the creation of local businessman Vess Jones. But Grigg didn't get along with his new boss, so in 1919 he walked and started work on an orange soda of his own. He obtained funding for the new company from his friend Edmund Ridgway, who had made his fortune investing in mining. In 1920, Grigg launched Howdy—a lightly carbonated but very sweet orange-flavored soda. Although Griggs and Ridgway had built a network of nearly four hundred bottlers by the mid-1920s, Howdy struggled, overshadowed by the rapid rise of Orange Crush, a rival orange soda from Chicago. Orange Crush was booming on the back of doctors recommending orange juice as a source of vitamin C, because the soda contained orange juice rather than the essential oils of the fruit’s peel that were used in Howdy. Grigg found his beverage under attack from rivals for its lack of juice, and new laws forced him to label Howdy an orange-flavored drink rather than an orange drink. He hated the obsession with juice and pulp, and he refused to change Howdy’s formula “simply in order to line up with a pseudo-consumerist notion that the addition of orange juice makes a better product.”
But the market had spoken, and by 1927 Grigg had started searching for a new drink to make his millions. He settled on the idea of creating a lemon soda. As one of the simplest flavors around, lemon sodas abounded, with around six hundred brands on sale in the United States alone during the late 1920s. But Grigg saw opportunity in this fiercely competitive sub-market due to the lack of a market leader. Grigg spent months perfecting his new drink, eventually settling on a lemon and lime flavored beverage that fizzed more than the average soda.
The drink also harked back to soda’s origins in patent medicine thanks to the inclusion of a trace of lithium citrate. Although better known today as an antidepressant, lithium’s use in pharmacology only began after World War II. Lithium’s main medical use in 1929 was as an alternative to table salt in the wake of research linking salt with hypertension and heart disease. This ill-advised substitution would continue until evidence of severe side effects and deaths prompted an outright ban on the sale of lithium salts in 1949; the ban also forced the removal of the substance from Grigg’s drink.
But in 1929 this was all to come, and Grigg was keen to highlight the alkali metal’s presence in his new drink, so much so that he named his beverage Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. Someone must have had a quiet word, though, because shortly after its October 1929 launch Grigg changed the name to 7Up. Why Grigg picked 7Up remains a mystery, but there’s no shortage of speculation. Some stories say Grigg got his inspiration while gambling with cards or dice. Another claims he saw a cattle brand with the shape of a seven and a u, while another tale suggested the seven represented the number of ingredients and the up referred to the fizz. Whatever the reason, looking back everything seemed stacked against 7Up.
It had launched just two weeks before the stock market crash, and it still had to find a way to stand out from its hundreds of competitors. But 7Up had some advantages. For a start it had Howdy’s bottling network to tap into, giving it instant reach across America, and because the drink was lower in sugar than most sodas, it was cheaper to make, which made it an appealing option for other cash-strapped bottlers. It also successfully promoted itself as a hangover cure, running a “7Up for 7 hangovers” campaign that pitched the drink as capable of easing the effects of overdrinking, oversmoking, underdrinking, mental lassitude, overwork, overeating, and over-worry. After sales of 7Up syrup reached 5,920 gallons in 1930, the drink began a steady rise. In 1933 syrup sales topped 174,000 gallons before shooting up to 2,074,000 gallons a year by 1936, after Grigg’s post-Prohibition decision to start promoting his soda as a mixer that “tames whiskey” and “glorifies gin.”
As 7Up raced to the top of the lemon soda league in 1936, Coca-Cola was marking its fiftieth anniversary with a party for its employees. By then Jones’s fears about beer had subsided, and the flamboyant and towering Coca-Cola sales chief was convinced that Coke was here to stay. “There may be war,” he told the assembled Coca-Cola men and women in a tub-thumping speech. “We can stand that. There may be revolutions. We will survive. Taxes may bear down to the breaking point. We can take it. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse may charge over the Earth and back again—and Coca-Cola will remain.”
This post is excerpted from Tristan Donovan's Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World.