How the Top One Percent Should Repay the Society that Made Their Wealth Possible

We’ve all heard of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and how it has contributed to charities around the world. But how many other billionaires give money to help others? Of course names and foundations will come to mind, but so many of today’s wealthiest Americans live lavishly and care little about the welfare of the less fortunate.

A century ago, millionaires were not much different from our current billionaires. Some hoarded their wealth while others felt an obligation to give part of their fortune to charities. Andrew Carnegie created public libraries and gave generously to universities. John D. Rockefeller and his family were benefactors in the arts and education. One relatively late arrival to the top level of the nation’s economic strata was Asa Candler. After he accumulated a fortune from founding the Coca-Cola Company, he began to support local and religious charities. These included an Atlanta Methodist hospital and various churches, not to mention several city projects. All of it was not entirely altruistic. For example, he devised a plan to assist Georgia cotton producers hurt by European embargos during World War I by buying their surpluses, storing them in one of his warehouses, and then selling them back to the farmers when the war ended. He did the same thing for housing foreclosures and bailed out a local bank that was about to go under. His profits from these dealings were little, and most of the recipients of his largesse were extremely grateful. Of course, he had his critics, who scorned him for manipulating merely to promote his reputation and increase his wealth.

At the beginning of World War I Candler made his greatest charitable gift. When Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee abandoned its Methodist affiliations, he donated a million dollars—an enormous sum in 1914—to establish a Southeastern Methodist university in Atlanta. For more than a decade Candler had been a trustee of a small Methodist college called Emory, in the small town of Oxford, Georgia. He and his younger brother, Warren, a bishop of the Methodist Church, decided to combine the two schools and build an affiliate campus on property which Asa Candler donated. The result was Emory University, today one of the nation’s major institutions of higher education, with few strings to its Methodist roots. The original donor might have been unhappy about the modern secular nature of the university, but his family has continued to support it and the affiliation with Coca-Cola has enabled Emory to become what it is today.

You can read all about the intricacies of Emory’s beginnings in Formula for Fortune: How Asa Candler Discovered Coca-Cola and Turned It into the Wealth His Children Enjoyed.

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Families: Dysfunctional or Normal?

Family dynamics have always fascinated me. How can several children in one family differ so enormously? Psychological and social theories of child rearing change from generation to generation, even though basic human behavior doesn’t change that much. In the nineteenth century, the goal of child-rearing was teaching discipline, good manners, humility, faith, etc. By the 1920s—as Freud’s theories became simplified for the common man—the terms “repression,” “suppression,” “libido,” “idiosyncrasies,” “dysfunctional” etc. entered the language, causing children to accuse parents of mistreatment and parents to feel guilty about their possible missteps. From that time forward, various theories have drifted into the many books on child-care and behavioral science, leading countless individuals to psychiatrists’ couches or therapy sessions. From Dyslexia to AHDD, there are explanations for every deviation from the supposed norms, and contemporary society seems baffled by ways to treat children and understand the people around them, whether friends or relatives.

So how did families function in earlier times without having their misbehavior or achievements examined from every angle? My observations over many decades has led me to conclude that families turned out to be about the same. One person would tow the line and become a responsible citizen, while another would live a troubled existences, creating problems for themselves, their parents, their spouses, their siblings, and their children. Is it really the “luck of the draw,” or can it be explained by some psychological quirk or brain malfunction? The arguments on both sides are endless and far beyond my area of expertise. But I am a historian interested in human nature, and during the past decade I’ve been researching and writing about two generations of Candlers, a rather typical late Victorian family, who differed only by the windfall of tremendous wealth that happened with the children were still young. Having made a fortune by founding the Coca-Cola Company, Asa Candler brought up five very different offspring. The oldest was conforming and responsible in his career as well as in family life, while his next-youngest brother was fun-loving, impetuous, and involved in numerous hair-brained schemes, some of which inadvertently swept him into trouble. The two younger brothers were paired in similar opposites. One was reckless and lived on the edge of serious misconduct; the other was a responsible citizen, although he often let his imagination and ambition endanger some of his long-cherished projects. The four men were always quarrelling, while their sister in the middle of her brothers was the pampered family favorite and the peacemaker who often kept the family from erupting into chaos.

Because the Candlers were so prominent in their hometown of Atlanta and throughout the nation in the early twentieth century, their quirks and accomplishments were well documented. Therefore, I could look at them individually and try to figure out what made them the way they were and write about them in Formula for Fortune. However, I’m still left with some questions: Were these kind of relationships and patterns normal or abnormal? Did great wealth influence their behavior? Did being in the spotlight cause them to exercise their individual impulses? Or were they simply products of their environment, typical for their time? I’d like to know what you think about this issue, so let me know.

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The American Dream: Is It Still Possible?

The “American Dream” is still one of the most talked about items on today’s political agenda.  But is it a reality during today’s economic downturn or “Great Recession” as the four-year-old money drain is popularly called?  A century ago the Horatio Alger novels represented the aspirations of  every red-blooded American hoping to rise from rags to riches.  Today we smile nostalgically when a politician shouts about restoring a society where an average (or even poor) boy or girl could rise to the top and make millions.  The economic inequality that is so obvious in theUnited Statesduring the second decade of the twenty-first century seems to contradict any hopes of aspiring young people succeeding to become a member of the uppermost one-percent.

 Where did we fall short?  How did our dreams of continual upward mobility crumble?  I blame several things:

  • The unchecked greed of corporate America that created a top-tier of billionaires and thwarted ambitions
  • The dominance of ultra-conservative ideologies that disparage innovation or change and create an atmosphere of hatred
  • The swiftly changing technology of the twenty-first century that has isolated people and kept them from interacting with others in real life
  • Nostalgia for a past that never really existed

Here’s how success happened one-hundred years ago:

  • People believed that the system would propel them upwardly, taught their children, and acted upon it themselves.
  • Between 1880 and 1980,U.S.political life remained relatively moderate and flexible.
  • Personalized marketing meant individuals continually worked to meet their customers and convince them to buy their products.
  • There was no easy road to success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and sacrifices were not only demanded but expected.

Asa Candler as the successful entrepreneur, c. 1910, courtesy Millennium Gate Museum, Atlanta, GA

My model for achieving the “American Dream” is Asa Griggs Candler, who knew since childhood that he wanted a better life.  He was cautious and conservative in his business pursuits, but extremely charitable in his church and community. Although a devout Methodist, he was open-minded about all other religions and took his responsibility to practice honesty and trustworthiness very seriously.  He was a perfectionist in personally managing the sales of Coca-Cola and every other avenue he pursued. A Southern Democrat, he supported all forms of moderation in city, state, and local politics.  He believed in public service and served as president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and devoted himself to a virtually unpaid term as mayor of Atlanta, donating all of his mayoral salary to support local civic needs.   If this looks like a  picture of a dull, humorless individual, it is not.  Asa Candler was a raconteur utilizing a large stock of Southern humor, which entered all communications with his family and friends and became part of every speech he ever made.  Then in later life, after his wife died, he stopped worrying about his public persona and lived an active and sometimes scandalous existence.  Find out about the struggles and triumphs of this typical—yet unique—entrepreneur, public servant, and philanthropist in Formula for Fortune: How Asa Candler Discovered Coca-Cola turned It into the Wealth His Children Enjoyed.

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Coca-Cola, Facebook, and Social Networking 19th Century Style

As I watched Mark Zuckerberg so triumphantly ring the bell on Wall Street, I couldn’t help thinking about a similar transaction in the early 1890s, when Asa Candler first offered shares of The Coca-Cola Company.   Sales of Facebook stock have been disappointing, and so was Coca-Cola when it entered the market.  In fact, Coca-Cola—one of today’s most profitable investments—was initially a disaster.

Asa Candler, founder of Coca-Cola, as a young pharmacist, 1876 (courtesy of MARBL, Emory Univ.)

Like Zuckerberg, the late Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and other Silicone Valley geniuses, Asa Candler was cocky, aggressive, and too impatient to bother with attaining a college degree.  Granted he was older (in his late 30s) when he bought the Coca-Cola formula and maneuvered it into a major phenomenon, but his ideas of promoting his product were very similar to these modern whiz kids.   In many ways, he resembled a Hogwarts wizard, as he stood over a large kettle stirring boiling sugar and water in the back of his Atlanta pharmacy syrup, adding the secret ingredients that only he and one other person knew — and voila it turned into Coca-Cola syrup!  Today’s obsessive all-night sessions in front of a computer screen pale in comparison.

Like most modern corporate triumphs, the key to Candler’s success was social networking, which a century before the internet meant national advertising.  To reach as many people as possible, Candler and his associates hired an advertising firm to plan a campaign.  These public relations agents ordered an array of urns, trays, car cards, and glasses with the Coca-Cola logo that today are considered priceless collector’s items.  After he perfected the syrup, Candler dispatched salesmen (including his oldest son) to carry heavy cases of advertising paraphernalia, along with gallon jugs of the syrup, on buggies and trains which traversed the nation.  The main gimmick of this campaign was a ticket for a free 5¢ Coca-Cola that salesmen gave to every soda fountain they visited, whether in small towns or large metropolitan areas.  It was a huge sensation and by 1900, the production of syrup had increased so enormously that the Atlanta plant had more new orders than it could manage.  So Candler solved that problem by opening syrup-manufacturing plants around the nation.  In 1904, the company placed its first ad in a national publication, Munsey’s Magazine, and they were off and running.   Within five years, the former Atlanta pharmacist was one of the wealthiest men in the country. Not bad without social networking.

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Atlanta Then and Now

Atlanta now seems like a city of the present, so vibrant, so contemporary.  Its politicians and leaders boast that the city looks forward, not backward.  Old buildings are torn down at a clip to make way for new ones.  Streets originally named for civic leaders shed those designations when a more recent luminary comes along.  The people are forgotten, the past is forgotten, while the city moves forward.  Yet Atlanta has a rich history, a fascinating history, which most of its inhabitants know nothing about.

Coca-Cola Sign next to the Candler Building - Atlanta, GA 1954

When I grew up here during the mid-twentieth century, Atlanta was a relatively small city.  Remnants of that past can still be found, although residents and tourists might have to search for them.  Many are connected with one family: the Candlers. For starters there is the large Coca-Cola sign that once dominated the hub of downtown, at the intersection of Peachtree and Forsythe Streets, outside of the Candler Building.  It was an important marker, and today its reincarnation stands a few blocks away.  Asa Candler founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1888, the headquarters of which dominate the midtown skyline.  In fact, “Coca-Cola” and “Candler” are names so intrinsically entrenched in Atlanta that neither can be erased.

Visitors who whiz through the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport might be impressed or annoyed by the frenetic buzz of twenty-first century technology and have no clue that the airport originated as an auto racing track called Candler Field. Today taller skyscrapers dwarf the seventeen-story Candler Building.  But who knows today that when it was opened in 1906, it was the city’s tallest structure?  And there are the Candler family homes, scattered through Druid Hills and Inman Park, each a veritable architectural monument.  And the beautiful quad of Emory University—as well as the school itself—is a reminder of the foresight and genius of Asa Griggs Candler, who donated the money for its founding and the land on which it is built.  Not only was he forefather of a first-class university and creator of the city’s most famous industry, but he was the city’s mayor during the critical years of World War I.

It is a legacy to be noted and remembered.  Do you want to know about the people who built the buildings and occupied the mansions?  It is an intriguing journey into a little visited world of the past.

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Formula for Fortune: How Asa Candler Discovered Coca-Cola and Turned It into the Wealth His Children Enjoyed

Most of us growing up in Atlanta during the 1940s were familiar with the name Candler. It meant Coca-Cola, it meant wealth, and it meant all the mansions that dotted my Druid Hills neighborhood. In those days, Asa Candler, who founded the company that manufactured the famous beverage, was still considered an important figure from the city’s recent past. When he died in 1929, the Atlanta Constitution called him “perhaps the most widely known citizen Atlanta ever had.” Yet more than eighty years hence, his fame has been overshadowed by that of the product he produced and promoted. Few are aware that Candler was mayor of Atlanta during World War I, dominated the local real estate market, and provided the funds to transform a small college in Oxford, Georgia, into Emory University. Along the way, he developed a garden suburb, opened a major bank, and constructed Atlanta’s then-tallest skyscraper, which he duplicated in New York while building major commercial structures and manufacturing plants throughout the United States. In short, he was the South’s equivalent of Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller.

Asa Candler came from a farm in Villa Rica, Georgia, in many ways personifying Horatio Alger’s fictional rise from rags to riches. Yet, notwithstanding his later stories about boyhood struggles, Asa was no child of poverty. In fact, his family lived quite comfortably during the antebellum years. His father, Sam Candler—a farmer and merchant—owned several slaves, but his wealth was seriously depleted as a result of the Civil War. Since Sam never lived to see Asa become one of the area’s richest residents, he died thinking his eighth child was a failure, certainly in comparison to his prominent brothers. The oldest, Milton, was a Georgia lawyer, who served in the United States House of Representatives, and the second oldest, Zeke, was a lawyer and preacher in Mississippi. Sam Candler’s tenth son, Warren, was a bishop of the Southern Methodist Church and president of Emory College during the 1890s, becoming the first chancellor when Emory University opened in 1917. John, the last of Sam’s children, was a distinguished judge of the Georgia Superior Court and a justice of the state Supreme Court.

In contrast, Asa refused to go to college and abandoned plans for a medical career to become a drugstore clerk. Within a few years after coming to Atlanta, he opened his own pharmacy, and then in 1888 he visited a local soda fountain in search of a headache remedy and swallowed a patent medicine that changed his life. Although that drink had been concocted by an eccentric druggist named John S. “Doc” Pemberton, Asa Candler manipulated the formula in order to buy it, tinkering with it awhile before producing the syrup that he marketed to soda jerks throughout the South. During the next decade, he turned the tonic into a nationwide marketing phenomenon. But that progression was not a smooth climb from soda fountain to international giant. A series of court cases instigated by the federal government questioned the inclusion of cocaine and caffeine in the syrup, and indeed a small amount of the narcotic remained in the formula until the company was forced to remove it. After battling his accusers and imitators for several decades, Candler grew weary of managing a large corporation and distributed his stock among his five children, leaving him free to devote the remainder of his life to charities and his city.

Much of this tale is in the public record, but the personal life of Asa Candler and his children is not. His affectionate—if domineering—relationship with his wife, Lucy Elizabeth, produced four sons and one daughter, all of whom became prominent Atlantans in their own rights, spending their inherited fortunes to reflect their individual quirks. Asa himself was a generous but manipulative father, determined to mold the character of each child, while Lucy Elizabeth was typical of her era’s hardworking mother, countering her husband’s tough love with an overabundance of nurturing that provided a steadfast presence which kept her sons’ disputes from splitting the family apart.

In many ways, the five Candler offspring exemplified the family dynamics that attract psychologists and sociologists. The oldest son, Howard, was the family good boy, responsible, obedient, serious, and thrifty. First working as his father’s lackey at Coca-Cola, and after he and his siblings sold the company, he freely (though cautiously) meted out his dollars to build a showplace home, served on corporate boards, and continued his father’s support of Emory University. The second son, Asa Jr. was his older brother’s polar opposite. He romped through a world that Jay Gatsby would have envied, living in extravagant luxury on his Druid Hills estate, owning several private planes and yachts, entertaining lavishly, and infuriating the neighbors by opening a zoo on his property. But despite his eccentricities, Asa Jr. negotiated some of the city’s most lucrative real estate transactions, including development of the Atlanta airport (first known as Candler Field) and bringing the first Macy’s department store south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Next in line was the only girl, Lucy, the pretty, outgoing light of her father’s life. From her spoiled and over-indulged childhood, she emerged as the cheerful arbitrator of her often fractious brothers. While reigning as a leading doyen of Atlanta society, Lucy enjoyed her own brand of ’20s excesses, traveling extensively and supervising construction of her Italian-style mansion. Despite her sunny exterior, she suffered many personal tragedies: the loss of two children and two husbands, the second the victim of a brutal and controversial murder. Her next younger brother, Walter, was almost as flamboyant as Asa Jr., but instead of a zoo, he had a large racetrack on the grounds of his estate and captured the headlines during a highly publicized adulterous affair. The last Candler child, William, was the only quiet and modest one of the five siblings. A well-respected businessman, he spent his share of the Coca-Cola fortune to construct Atlanta’s Biltmore Hotel.

 Weaving through the narrative is the remarkable growth of Atlanta and the Candler’s contributions to it. Commercial properties—from the beautiful Candler Building to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—stand as testimonies to their dominance over the real estate market. And in Druid Hills, one of Atlanta’s first suburbs, numerous well-known landmarks remain, including Howard’s mansion, Callanwolde, and the campus of Emory University. Towering above all the family’s accomplishments, the International Coca-Cola complex shines as a dynamic reminder of Asa Candler’s once-dominant presence.

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