The Very First Coupons

Mark Ellwood
Mark Ellwood / 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.