We’ve all heard the stories from our elders about how things have changed since they were wee ones. There were five-mile hikes to school in the snow, mean nuns with rulers and a propensity to slap, and Cokes for only five cents. But hold up — how could I have heard the story of the five-cent Coke from my mother and her father? And if I spoke to my great-grandfather he likely would’ve said the same thing. How in the heck did a Coke cost five cents for 70 years?
It all boils down to this: Because Coca-Cola said so. Even while other products had price changes due to market fluctuations and pressure from competitors, Coke stuck at $0.05 until about 1959.
NPR digs into the history of Coke in its bottled form, going back to 1899 when two ambitious lawyers apparently badgered the president of Coca-Cola into letting them sell the stuff in bottles instead of at soda fountains.
He eventually signed over the bottling rights to the twosome, as well as agreeing to sell them the syrup at a fixed price forevermore. Maybe just to get them out of his office, but in any case they left with a profitable contract.
Bottled drinks, of course, took off. And Coca-Cola was in a bind. If the bottlers or a corner store decided to raise the price of a bottle of Coke, Coca-Cola wouldn’t get any extra money.
So, if you’re Coca-Cola, you want to somehow keep the price down at 5 cents so you can sell as much syrup as possible to the bottlers. What do you do?
As one expert put it — you just tell the entire country that they can expect to buy a bottle of Coke for $0.05 no matter where they go, by covering America in ads that tout that price. Coke had no control over slapping price tags on the bottles, but with such a targeted ad campaign, stores would’ve had a tough time explaining a Coke that cost more.
Even the renegotiation of the syrup contract couldn’t stop the five-cent-Coke-apalooza, because Coca-Cola vending machines were designed to only accept nickels. Clever trick, Coca-Cola. If they couldn’t charge double the price (too much, too fast!), how about um, $0.075?
So they asked the U.S. Treasury to issue a 7.5-cent coin. At one point, the head of Coca-Cola asked President Eisenhower for help. (They were hunting buddies.) No luck.
Inflation eventually put the nickel Coke in its grave, with the last one likely sold in 1959. But a product that costs the same for 70 years? That’s something we’ll probably never see again. I’m expecting to pay $100 for a piece of gum in like, 10 years, so that should be fun.