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Mark Ellwood

The Very First Coupons

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Mark Ellwood

Mark Ellwood is the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World.

TLC’s surreal megahit Extreme Couponing (aka Hoarders with a half-price twist) has made the coupon a pop culture touchstone once again. Coupons have made the kind of comeback Lindsay Lohan would envy: 2010 marked the largest number ever distributed stateside—322 billion in just twelve months when shoppers used them to save around two billion dollars. It’s strange to think, then, that we don’t even know the name of the man who first came up with the idea. All that’s certain is that he was an accountant in Georgia.

That discount pioneer was the bookkeeper for a morphine-addicted Civil War veteran called John Pemberton, who’d dreamed up a sugary tincture to try and make his fortune. Pemberton dubbed his delicious medicine, supposedly a nerve tonic, Coca Cola. To help juice sales of the soda, his moneyman suggested a special deal: handwritten slips that offered the bearer a free glass of Coca Cola from any soda fountain, passed out on the street much as today’s flyers still are.

Photo courtesy of Mark Ellwood

When the sickly inventor offloaded his secret recipe to a smart but dour entrepreneur named Asa Candler, the new owner also co-opted his marketing trick. He reconfigured the mechanics, though: Instead of handing out slips on the street, he would send them to commercial customers, the soda fountains. When someone ordered one gallon of syrup, Candler sent two gallons for the same price, plus a fistful of coupons. The equation was simple: Use these ONE FREE GLASS tokens until the first gallon is finished, he suggested, and watch as the second gallon sells briskly.

It was a masterstroke of marketing. Within a decade, thanks to his canny couponing, the Georgia tonic was for sale in every state in the country. Indeed, between 1886 and 1920, when the program was quietly retired, 10 percent of all Coca-Cola in the world was given away for free via a sample coupon; by one estimate, that’s around 8.5 million glasses. (Sadly, none of the original batch survives—too flimsy, and likely too eagerly redeemed—but some of the earliest Candler-era coupons are displayed in a vitrine at Coca Cola’s massive museum in downtown Atlanta.)

The economic slowdown of the Depression turbocharged coupon usage (sound familiar?); other companies like Colgate copied the idea, printing coupons on the wrappers of products like soap, making sure there was a built-in discount on the next purchase. What really catapulted the coupon into everyone’s wallet, though, was the post-war suburban boom of Atomic Era America: TV dinners, station wagons, and chainlink fences. Supermarkets sprung up for the first time, wielding coupons as a discount weapon of mass destruction and luring suburbanites from mom & pop shops.

By 1965, one half of all American households were clipping coupons; ten years later, that number had reached a staggering 75 percent. And all thanks to our love of a glass of Coca Cola.

Mark Ellwood is offering an exclusive deal on this book: A BONUS chapter, Bargain Fever: The Manual, which features 100 tips and tricks to help you save money and shop smarter, from airline tickets to TVs. Order a copy of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World (Penguin-Portfolio, October 2013) here before October 17 and forward the proof of purchase to You'll then receive this exclusive pdf by email on the day of publication.

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Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing


1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.


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