Dr Pepper history: How the famous soft drink made a big name for itself

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Dr Pepper How the famous soft drink made a name for itself

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Dr Pepper is the oldest major soft drink in the United States. Said to have been created by Charles Alderton in 1885, the one-of-a-kind soda was first sold at Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas. 

So, what flavor is Dr Pepper supposed to be? Basically, all of them!

As the story goes, Alderton combined more than 20 different soda fountain syrups — some combination of popular flavors like cola, root beer, cherry, orgeat (almonds and rosewater), chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and sarsaparilla, among others.

Then, along with carbonated water, he boosted the blend with a little phosphoric acid (which is still used today to give sodas zip).

The article below from 1977 includes just one variation of several Dr Pepper origin stories — which is how most old stories go, right?

Dr Pepper’s Rx: Pop for breakfast – Soft drink firm tries to change its old image (1977)

By Timothy McNulty in the Miami Herald (Miami, Florida) May 5, 1977

There is a scent in the large, mural-lined lobby, a fruity, cherry-like aroma. It identifies the brand, and it is present throughout the entire building — a structure where the word “cola” is spoken with disdain.

Jackie, a young receptionist, is seated at a heavy oak desk in the middle of the lobby, smiling and greeting visitors, some of them from Europe and Asia, lured here by talk of distributorships. And behind her is a stainless steel coffeepot full of hot Dr Pepper.

Hot Dr Pepper (1968)

Squeezing slices of lemon into cups of the hot soft drink, she hands out the beverage to the visitors.

They sip as they ride the elevators up to the floor where the company president, W.W. Clements, greets them in his large, airy office of potted plants and conference tables.

As he rises from behind his glossy executive desk, one hand is holding a half-filled bottle of Dr Pepper.

H S Billingsley, Chairman of the Board (left) and W W Clements, President and CEO of Dr Pepper (1971)
H S Billingsley, Chairman of the Board (left) and W W Clements, President and CEO of Dr Pepper (1971)

This corporation appears to be in overdrive in its efforts to convince people to drink what it sells.

It is hungry (or, perhaps, thirsty) to take its strong 85-year history in the South and expand that to every state and every country in the world.

To do that its board of directors has set a 10-year goal of overtaking the General Motors of the pop business — the mammoth Coca-Cola Co. Few, if any, industry analysts believe it can be done.

Dr Pepper headquarters in 1970

This year, Dr Pepper continues in fourth place in the sweet-drink race, behind 7-Up, Pepsi-Cola, and Coke.

In 1975, it had only 4.9 per cent of the market with 217 million cases, compared with Coke’s gigantic 26.2 percentage of soft drink sales with 1,170 million cases.

Dr Pepper salesmen in uniforms (1972)

That hardly discourages Clements, who has been with the company for 35 years, and has helped the beverage expand from a flavored syrup first served and produced at the Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Tex., to markets as far away as Tokyo.

To do that, Clements has had to discourage some of the drink’s historical appeal — especially the idea that Dr Pepper is really a laxative.

Dr Pepper soda fountains in the 1950s

That fallacy began around 1925, when the president and son-in-law of the company founder decided to make use of the findings of a Columbia University researcher who believed the average person experiences an energy letdown during a normal day at about 10:30, 2:30, and 4:30.

J.B. O’Hara, the son-in-law, believed the sugar content of the drink would perk people up at those times, and began an advertising campaign with the slogan “Drink a Bite to Eat at 10, 2, and 4 o’clock.”

Vintage Dr Pepper bottle and logo (1966)

Although the use of the 10-2-4 set of numbers was discontinued on company bottles several years ago, old advertising signs and painted barns throughout the South still display those numerals.

“Get it right from the horse’s mouth,” says Clements, who drinks up to 18 bottles of the stuff each day. “There is absolutely no prune juice in Dr Pepper.”

DON’T MISS: How Hot Dr Pepper became a cool thing in the world of warm winter drinks (1960s)

The company formula is naturally a close-kept secret, but Clements does say there are 23 ingredients, and one of them is cherry juice, which is the predominant flavor.

The laxative myth also inspired a six-year advertising campaign that Dr Pepper was “America’s Most Misunderstood Soft Drink.”

Dr Pepper - America's most misunderstood soft drink (1970)

The current campaign, with a large national advertising budget for radio and television, calls it “The Most Original Soft Drink Ever.”

The brand loyalty of Dr Pepper drinkers is very high, according to company surveys. (Clements started drinking it in 1935 when he was a soft-drink route salesman.)

And a company official last year told the Investment Analysts Society of Chicago that the most successful Dr Pepper franchises cultivate the 8- to 18-year-old age group.

“This age group is not only high in their consumption of soft drinks,” he said, “they are the most flexible in their taste preferences.”

Nautical Dr Pepper store display (1966)

Clements says that after the teen years, most soft-drink taste habits are well formed. Another official said that more and more children are drinking soft drinks with breakfast and that’s the group to cultivate.

Clements scorns the suggestion that such consumption of sugared drinks might not be healthful. He drinks three to four hot Dr Peppers in the morning, and says the heating process cuts the sugar content.

He also says that sugar-free Dr Pepper is one of the leading diet drinks.

ALSO SEE: Pop culture: Vintage diet sodas from the ’80s, like Dr Pepper, Sprite, Diet Coke & Fresca

Sugar Free Dr Pepper - Packaging from 1971
Sugar Free Dr Pepper – Packaging from 1971

For all his enthusiasm, there still looms the specter of the giant colas.

The history of Dr Pepper

A Dr Pepper history of soft drinks credits Dr. Joseph Priestley, the English chemist, with producing the first artificially carbonated water in 1767. 

Doctors at the time suggested using the water on long sea journeys to prevent scurvy.

Dr Pepper bottling plant around 1900

Five years later, a Philadelphia apothecary owner, Townsend Speaker, got the idea of adding fruit juices to make it tastier.

And from then, says the company, the industry grew into the more than $5 billion-a-year business it is today.

The U.S. Patent Office granted the first patent for a soda fountain in 1809. Dr Pepper began about 75 years later.

Vintage Dr Pepper sign from 1949

As the story goes, it started with a young man who worked in a Virginia drugstore owned by a doctor named Pepper.

The young man wished to woo the doctor’s daughter, but was rebuffed by her father so he headed west to Waco.

He began experimenting with flavors and, on a trip back to Virginia, finally won the young lady’s hand. He also came up with a drink he really liked.

Others also liked it, and when his customers learned of the romance back in Virginia, they dubbed the new drink in honor of the father who relented and allowed his daughter’s marriage.

Two years later, in 1885, another beverage chemist perfected the drink and began marketing it. Its contents remain basically unchanged.

At least that’s the way the story goes.

Would you like some Dr Pepper with your Dr Pepper (1974)


Dr Pepper: Accessory to gracious living! (1946)

Dr Pepper! The quality drink for “quality folks” since 1885. The smart lift for busy people during business hours…the sparkling refresher for smart people during social hours.

Icy-cold, keen and tart yet rich in quick-energy fuel. Unique in taste… utterly different from any other 5c carbonated drink. Stick to Dr Pepper, at 10, 2 and 4 o’clock, or anytime you’re hungry, thirsty or tired.

Listen… Laugh… enjoy “Darts for Dough” ABC Network… every Sunday afternoon — Hold those bonds!

Drink Dr Pepper — Good for life! At 10, 2, 4 o’clock, or any time you’re hungry, thirsty or tired

Dr Pepper for gracious living (1946)


The long, wide taste of Dr Pepper (1959)

A description for folks who have never had the pleasure first hand

Dr Pepper is a very m-m-m-m flavored soft drink, with a bit of iciness around the edges. It’s sparkly and playful, and glad to the taste.

The fruit formula is secret, but there’s no disguising the live-it-up feeling it gives you inside.

Dr Pepper isn’t one of those timid, tip-of-the-tongue drinks. It has a taste that’s W-I-D-E enough to cover the far corners of a big thirst… L-O-N-G enough to reach clear down to where laughter begins. There’s nothing else in the long, wide world that tastes like Dr Pepper.

If Dr Pepper isn’t sold where you live, you have two choices: you can move — lock, stock and barrel — to a more fortunate locale. Or you can wait til it does come to your town. With so many people asking for Dr Pepper, chances are it won’t be very long.

Frosty, man, frosty — Dr Pepper Company – Dallas, Texas

Listen to “Pepper-Upper Time” starrying Eydie Gorme on ABC Radio Network

ALSO SEE: Teem soda: Remembering Pepsi’s lemon-lime soft drink before Sierra Mist

The long, wide taste of Dr Pepper (1959)


Dr Pepper time schedule (1959)

TIMETABLE CHANGE: New time schedule for drinking Dr Pepper

The famous 10, 2 and 4 “Pepper-Upper” can be enjoyed anytime by folks lucky enough to live where it can be bought.

For years and years, Dr Pepper has been the traditional pepper-upper at those let-down times of the day: 10 o’clock, 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock. This has led some folks to think that it’s illegal to drink Dr Pepper at 2:30 or 6:15 or midnight.

That’s ridiculous! It’s not only legal, but downright clever of you to reach for a Dr Pepper whenever you want something bright, refreshing and different-tasting to go with food or fun. It’s quite all right to drink Dr Pepper constantly!

If, however, you live where Dr Pepper isn’t sold, bear up. It’s been hard to make enough Dr Pepper to sell it everywhere — but we’re trying. We ought to be able to send some your way very soon now.

FREE! Official license to drink Dr Pepper anytime If your peace of mind demands it, we’ll be happy to send you s official license, giving you legal permission to enjoy the distinctive taste of Dr Pepper not only at 10, 2 and 4 — when you need a lift more — but any time you want to refresh…

ALSO SEE: Vintage McDonald’s: See 5 decades of the famous fast food chain’s retro restaurants, menus & history

Dr Pepper time schedule (1959)


Dr Pepper history: It’s different – I like it vintage ad (1961)

Dr Pepper - It's different - I like it ad (1961)


Dr Pepper ice cream floats & sherbet floats (1967)

Have a ball of ice cream or sherbet with Dr Pepper floats

Get with it! Mix and match ice cream, sherbet — or inspired combinations of both — with Dr Pepper. Crazy? You bet! But it’s what’s happening.

Pour Dr Pepper or Diet Dr Pepper over strawberry, lemon sherbet — even banana fudge walnut ripple, if you like. And Dr Pepper makes it great! For it’s not a cola, not a root beer, but a blend of deep fruit flavors that go with any ice cream or sherbet.

So get pouring! Invent your own superfloat! Discover what the Proud Crowd enjoys — the Dr Pepper Difference — and have a ball!

Dr Pepper ice cream and sherbet floats recipe from 1967


WHY IS IT CALLED DR PEPPER? WAS THERE A REAL DOCTOR PEPPER?

What’s a doctor doing in the soft drink business, anyway? (1970)

“How’d a soft drink ever get a name like Dr Pepper anyway?”

Well, one thing is for certain, we didn’t just pick that name out of thin air. No sir.

There’s a story behind it: Once in a small town in Virginia lived a young lad who worked as a soda jerk for a prominent Virginia pharmacist named Pepper. Dr Pepper.

The good Doctor had a daughter. Before he realized it, the young lad had fallen in love. And so had the daughter. They decided to be wed.

The good Doctor would not hear of it, and he fired the lad and sent the daughter away to school.

The young boy ran off to Waco, Texas, and there, once again, he sought employment as a soda jerk.

While experimenting at his trade, he hit upon a soft drink that soon became the favorite of the Waco residents. And its fame spread far and near.

“Its taste,” they said, “deliciously different from all others.” And because of the story so often told over a glass of the lad’s now famous drink, the good residents of Waco labeled it Dr Pepper.

And that, dear friends, is the truth about Dr Pepper at last. 

America’s most misunderstood soft drink.

ALSO SEE: Bubble Up lemon-lime soda: The old soft drink with a surprisingly long history

Dr Pepper soft drink business (1970)


Dr Pepper original soft drinks – Bottles cans and cups (1971)

Dr Pepper original soft drinks - Bottles cans and cups (1971)

MORE: See some vintage Shasta sodas, from chocolate cola to lemon-lime to strawberry pop


HOW THEY MADE DR PEPPER – THE FACTORIES

Making Dr Pepper in 1968

How they made Dr Pepper in 1968


Dr Pepper factory: Bottles on a production line (1976)

Dr Pepper bottles on production line in factory (1976)


Making Dr Pepper: Vintage soda cans on the factory production line (1977)

Vintage Dr Pepper cans on production line (1977)


Vintage mod Dr Pepper clocks and thermometers (1968)

Vintage mod Dr Pepper clocks and thermometers (1968)


Retro Dr Pepper branded calendar and clock (1971)

ALSO SEE: 48 retro wall clocks in traditional & modern designs from the 1950s, 1960s & 1970s

Retro Dr Pepper swag from 1971 - Calendar and clock


VINTAGE GROCERY STORE DISPLAYS

World’s largest Dr Pepper in-store display in 1963

World's largest Dr Pepper in-store display in 1963


Huge Dr Pepper supermarket display in 1969

Huge Dr Pepper supermarket display in 1969


Man building a Dr Pepper merchandise display in 1970

Man building a Dr Pepper merchandise display in 1970


Marketing Dr Pepper (1971)

Marketing Dr Pepper (1971)


Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too – sheet music (1979)

Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too sheet music (1979)

NOW SEE THIS: Vintage Dixie cups: See retro designs & dispensers, plus get the history of the little disposable cups

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