Born on 13 December 1866 in Vicksburg, Joseph Biedenharn was the eldest of twelve children born to Herman Biedenharn, a German immigrant, and Louisa Wilhelmine Lundberg Biedenharn, a native of Denmark. Herman Biedenharn and his brother, Henry, founded a retail confectionary business in Vicksburg, and Joseph grew up working in the store.
In 1888, at the age of twenty-two, Joseph Biedenharn inherited the confectionary business and renamed it Biedenharn Candy Company. The operation remained a family affair, with his seven younger brothers working in the store. Joseph married Anna Schlottman the following year. The business expanded, and in 1890 Biedenharn Candy Company started serving its customers a new fountain drink, Coca-Cola. Herman Biedenharn had imparted some lasting wisdom: “Son, go into the nickel business. Everybody’s got a nickel. People will spend a nickel, but they will hold on to a dime.” Sales of five-cent glasses of Coca-Cola took off.
Coca-Cola’s rise in popularity had in many ways paralleled the Biedenharns’ progress in Vicksburg. Created in 1886 by chemist Dr. J. S. Pemberton of Atlanta, the product was originally available only at a single Atlanta soda fountain. Asa Candler, a wholesale druggist in the city, bought into the fledgling Coca-Cola Company, added the new soda to his product line, and used creative marketing strategies and a sales force of mobile representatives to boost the drink’s popularity. Joseph Biedenharn already sold carbonated soda to local vendors and decided to become a wholesaler, providing Coca-Cola syrup to soda vendors in Mississippi.
At the time, Coca-Cola could be purchased only at soda fountain counters, where the syrup was mixed with carbonated soda, but in Biedenharn’s words, “I wanted to bring Coca-Cola to the country people outside the limits of the fountain. Even in the cities, the fountains were often limited in number and scattered here and there. I could see that many townsfolk wanted Coca-Cola, but it was not easily available.” In 1894 Biedenharn’s operation on Washington Street in Vicksburg became the first Coca-Cola bottler. After sending the first twelve bottles to Candler, Biedenharn set out in a horse and buggy and sold bottled Coca-Cola to the people of rural Mississippi for seventy cents per case. All seven of Biedenharn’s brothers followed his lead, establishing additional Coca-Cola bottling plants in Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
In 1913 Joe and Anna Biedenharn and their three children moved to Monroe, Louisiana, where he continued bottling operations and expanded into other successful businesses. In 1944, commemorating fifty years of bottling Coca-Cola, company president Harrison Jones honored Biedenharn, and his portrait was hung in the halls of the Atlanta headquarters. Bidenharn died in 1952. The family’s former home in Louisiana is now open to the public as the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens. In 1979 the Biedenharn family reacquired the building on Washington Street in Vicksburg where Coca-Cola was first bottled, and the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation now owns it and operates it as the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum.
- Correspondence with Nancy Bell, Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum
- Emy-Lou Biedenharn, Biedenharn Heritage 1852–1952 (1962)
- Biedenharn Museum and Gardens website, www.bmuseum.org
- Coca-Cola Company website, www.thecoca-colacompany.com
- Dennis Seid, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (9 September 2007)
- Pat Watters, Coca-Cola: An Illustrated History (1978)