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Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

The True Story of the Coca-Cola Knockoff Koca-Nola

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Charles David Head and Ron Fowler

Thomas Austin was not a happy man. An entrepreneur who had made a fair share of money in the coal mining business, he had opened up a pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia at the turn of the century. Business was good enough, but Austin was a little perturbed at his passive role as a dispenser of soda. Customers streamed in looking for bottles buried in ice or on tap, especially Coca-Cola, the most famous and most widely-distributed of them all. It was sugar water. What could be so hard about perfecting that?

In Atlanta, Austin was literally down the street from Coke’s headquarters. He wanted a bigger share of the profits, so he decided to start bottling his own. In 1904, he began to sell a beverage he called Koca-Nola.

The carbonated, glass-bottled pop was an overnight success for the reason Austin anticipated: It was easily confused for Coke, right down to the crown-topped bottle and distinctive embossed labeling. For customers in some territories who lacked the ability to read, it looked virtually identical. Austin was soon making deals with bottlers across the country—more than 40 states in all—to market his soda, which was said to be tasty and gave thirsty patrons quite an energy boost.

According to Koca-Nola historian Charles David Head, who authored the book A Head’s Up on Koca-Nola, Austin was more successful than most of the Coke impostors of the era (which numbered more than 150 in total) in part because he made advertising a priority. “He had the money to invest in ads,” Head tells mental_floss. “Everywhere you looked, there was Koca-Nola on matches, postcards, and thermometers.” Austin even produced promotional material using art from well-known illustrator Philip Boileau, lending Koca-Nola some legitimacy beyond its liberal use of Coke’s brand awareness.

In addition to a serious marketing push, Austin enticed bottlers with offers of free samples they could return for a refund if they failed to sell. Koca-Nola enlisted dozens of loyal franchisees this way, peddling the 5-cent, 8-ounce drinks in local markets and targeting some of their ads toward the flood of immigrants entering the country in the early 20th century. “Coke was a little upper crust,” Head says. “Koca-Nola, well, anyone was free to buy it.”

From 1906 to 1909, Koca-Nola was one of the best-selling sodas on the market. Unfortunately, its aggressive advertising would soon become a significant detriment to the company’s long-term prospects. Promising customers Koca-Nola was “dopeless”—many sodas of the era, including Coke, contained then-legal cocaine from coca leaves or from an extract solution—was misleading. When the U.S. government tested Koca-Nola in both New Orleans and Washington, D.C. in 1908, officials found it was positive for 1/200th of a grain of cocaine, or twice the normal amount typically found in “pick me up” drinks of the era. 

The issue was not the drug itself, but that Koca-Nola had “adulterated” its label by not disclosing the full contents. Austin denied the charges, insisting Koca-Nola was free of the stimulant. But a U.S. District Court in Atlanta was swayed by prosecutors and their expert witnesses, who all testified the soda had tested positive for enough cocaine to introduce a habit in customers who consumed five or more bottles a day.

Though the drug was found in many sodas on the market, Koca-Nola became the industry’s scapegoat. After a guilty verdict was rendered in 1909, enforcers for the recently-enacted Pure Food and Drugs Law went after other soda manufacturers for similar infractions before cocaine was banned outright in 1914. Carbonated beverages had to rely on caffeine for a boost; Coca-Cola’s unique bottle shape, patented in 1916, helped even illiterate customers distinguish the brand from its imitators. (In 2013, the company denied cocaine had ever been an ingredient.)

Koca-Nola hobbled along for several more years, living on in some local markets where it was still popular, before disappearing entirely in 1918. Of all Coke’s early copycats, it might have been the most stubborn, and the most successful. “People would crave more because it had twice as much cocaine in it,” Head says. “It had to have quite a kick back then.”

All images courtesy of Charles David Head and Ron Fowler.

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The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Tengi

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.

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