Pop Star: How Pepsi Got Its Name

From a nation plagued by indigestion rose an unlikely—and questionable—hero.
Retro Pepsi-Cola logos from the mid-20th century.
Retro Pepsi-Cola logos from the mid-20th century. / Qirille, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

During the 1890s, several years after the creation of Coca-Cola, pharmacist Caleb Bradham concocted a similar bubbly beverage in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina. Though it was initially called “Brad’s Drink,” the world would come to know it by another name: Pepsi.

How it got that moniker is a story of top-notch marketing and dubious medical merits.

Formula One Tracing

In 1893, Caleb Bradham was about two years into a schoolteaching career when New Bern’s drugstore owner decided to sell his business. Bradham, with an unfinished medical school degree and some pharmacy experience under his belt, bought the shop and named it Bradham’s Pharmacy.

a replica of caleb bradham's drugstore including an apothecary and 3D model of bradham
A replica of Caleb Bradham's pharmacy in a New Bern museum exhibition. / Sandstein, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

It’s unclear how long it took him to start tinkering with soda formulas, but patrons definitely had the chance to try his soft drink before the turn of the century. It’s also unclear exactly what was in that first version. An early Pepsi recipe, which Bradham himself detailed in 1923, included the following ingredients:

  • Confectioners’ sugar
  • Water
  • Caramel
  • Lime juice
  • Phosphoric acid
  • Alcohol
  • Lemon oil
  • Orange oil
  • Cinnamon oil
  • Nutmeg oil
  • Coriander oil
  • Petitgrain oil 

One item is conspicuously missing from the list, though: kola nuts, a caffeinated nut native to West Africa that’s usually cited as one of Pepsi’s original ingredients. Kola nuts are partially what inspired Bradham to rechristen his drink “Pepsi-Cola” once it started to gain popularity—and he did mention “the active Principles of the Kola Nut” in a 1903 trademark application for the term. 

heap of dried kola nuts
Dried kola nuts. / Erika Bunea/500px/Getty Images

It’s possible that kola nuts were never actually featured in the formula, but it’s perhaps more likely that the formula just changed over time (vanilla, another “original” ingredient, is also absent from the 1923 recipe). Bradham may have used kola nuts in his soda and then, as he scaled up his business, replaced them with a collection of oils that approximated the same flavor. 

In any case, it wasn’t so much the Cola half of the title that captivated consumers.

Pep Talk

During the mid- to late 19th century, as dyspepsia—or indigestion—became an increasingly common complaint, products sprung up that purported to cure it. Many of those products contained animal pepsin, a digestive enzyme also found in human gastric juices. There were pepsin chewing gums, pepsin tonics, pepsin syrups, and even, coincidentally, a pepsin tablet called “Pepsikola” (after Laxakola, a previous drug from the same company).

A 1913 advertisement for Wrigley's version of pepsin gum
A 1913 advertisement for Wrigley's version of pepsin gum. / The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

All this to say that by the time Pepsi-Cola arrived on the scene, people were well primed to associate a name like that with dyspepsia relief. New Bern’s Pepsi Store, located on the site of Bradham’s Pharmacy, has stated that “despite its name and hearsay, pepsin was never an ingredient of Pepsi-Cola.” But plenty of old newspaper advertisements beg to differ. “Every glass contains a teaspoonful essence pepsin. 5 cts at all soda fountains,” North Carolina’s Goldsboro Daily Argus printed in December 1902. A 1906 article in the Birmingham Age-Herald not only reported that the soda contained pepsin, but also that it was “commonly known as the ‘Pepsin Drink.’”

According to the Pepsi Store, the Pepsi of Pepsi-Cola was simply inspired by the word dyspepsia. And even if Bradham didn’t literally put pepsin in his pop, he certainly didn’t shy away from marketing it to dyspeptics. In fact, that was sort of the central theme of his early advertising.

“Pepsi-Cola is the great American drink for the great American evil, INDIGESTION!” read one 1906 ad. “It digests what you eat, tickles the tongue, quenches the thirst, and makes you finish a glass with that smack of satisfaction which comes only from a perfected drink. Try it!”

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The catchiness of the copy was at least an improvement over this eerily plaintive relic from a few years prior: “If you are troubled with your digestion, drink Pepsi-Cola. If you are troubled with your appetite, drink Pepsi-Cola, drink it whenever you please, it will not harm you.” It wasn’t just stomach afflictions that Pepsi claimed to cure; it could also reportedly banish your headache, steady your nerves, and give your “fatigued brain” a rest. 

Had Pepsi tasted awful, its many professed health benefits may not have sufficed to make it a success. But it didn’t: People relished its fizzy sweetness, and by the end of the decade Bradham had expanded operations across the country and into Canada. The Pepsi-Cola Company was a bona fide franchise business with some 250 bottling plants and a fleet of delivery automobiles (almost unheard of in a time when horse-drawn carts were still the de facto delivery vessel). It even scored a celebrity endorsement: Race car driver Barney Oldfield dubbed it “a bully drink—refreshing, invigorating, a fine ‘bracer’ before a race, and a splendid restorer afterwards.”

three kids sitting on the ledge of a car sipping bottled pepsi in 1939
Kids drinking bottled Pepsi circa 1939. / The Montifraulo Collection/GettyImages

Pepsi-Cola’s prosperity faltered in a huge way during the 1920s, when fluctuating sugar prices forced Bradham to declare bankruptcy. But the business was eventually bought and resurrected the following decade, and it’s been more or less a mainstay of America’s soft drink industry ever since.

A Cult-Favorite Cure

It would be easy to write off all claims of Pepsi’s curative properties as a sign of the times. Modern medicine still had a lot to figure out at the dawn of the 20th century, and businesses weren’t yet beholden to strict regulations for safety and transparency enforced by federal agencies like the FTC and the FDA.

But unlike other misguided medical advice from eras past, soda has managed to remain a revered home remedy for an upset stomach to this day. Which begs the question: Might it actually work?

It depends on why your stomach hurts and what kind of soda you’re drinking. In general, though, the cons probably outweigh the pros. If you’re dealing with diarrhea and vomiting, for example, you want something that will rehydrate you and replenish your electrolytes—and regular colas are typically too high in sugar and too low in electrolytes to be effective. If you’re dealing with nausea, constipation, and/or bloating, ginger could help—but contemporary ginger ales typically contain little to no real ginger (and, again, tons of sugar, which could worsen your symptoms).

three white pepsi cans in a row
There's more added sugar in a single can of coke than you're supposed to have in an entire day. / SOPA Images/GettyImages

That said, it’s hard to ignore all the people who swear by sipping soda of some kind or another whenever they feel queasy; and even medical professionals have occasionally admitted that the carbonation in soda may help ease nausea, though they’re quick to qualify that it’s far from a scientific fact or a one-size-fits-all treatment.

In short, Pepsi’s legacy as a wonder drug for stomach woes doesn’t totally hold up to our 21st-century standards. But for fans of the drink, guzzling it down with a “smack of satisfaction” has proven to be a pretty timeless experience.