Brain Pickings

A Secret Illustrated History of Coffee, Coca, and Cola

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What America’s premier anti-drug autocrat has to do with Bach and helping Coke import illegal coca leaves.

On the heels of the year’s best picture-books and the question of what makes a great one comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) by Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep. This fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, traces the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, within a larger subtext of the role of prohibition in modern culture.

Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:

At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.

Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.

Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.

Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
1886.

But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.

The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.

Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:

The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?

“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.

Images courtesy Ricardo Cortés / Akashic Books

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