When Did Americans Start Drinking Such Ridiculously Huge Sodas?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 14 2012 2:03 PM

When Did Sodas Get So Big?

It started during the Great Depression.

A customer fills a 21 ounce cup with soda at a 'McDonalds'.
How did soda sizes reach 21 ounces and larger?

Photograph by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

The New York City Board of Health voted Thursday to ban the sale of sugary soft drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, a move that has sparked intense debate between public health advocates and beverage industry lobbyists. When did sodas get so big in the first place?

In the 1930s. At the beginning of the Great Depression, the 6-ounce Coca-Cola bottle was the undisputed king of soft drinks. The situation began to change in 1934, when the smallish Pepsi-Cola company began selling 12-ounces bottles for the same nickel price as 6 ounces of Coke. The move was brilliant. Distribution, bottling, and advertising accounted for most of the company’s costs, so adding six free ounces hardly mattered. In addition, the 12-ounce size enabled Pepsi-Cola to use the same bottles as beer-makers, cutting container costs. The company pursued a similar strategy at the nation’s soda fountains, selling enough syrup to make 10 ounces for the same price as 6 ounces worth of Coca-Cola. Pepsi sales soared, and the company soon produced a jingle about their supersize bottles: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, 12 full ounces, that’s a lot. Twice as much for a nickel, too. Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.” Pepsi’s value-for-volume gambit kicked off a decades-long industry trend.

Coke was slow to respond at first, according to author Mark Pendergrast, who chronicled the company’s history in For God, Country, and Coca-Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It. President Robert Woodruff held firm to the 6-ounce size, even as his subordinates warned him that Pepsi was onto something. By the 1950s, industry observers predicted that Coca-Cola might lose its dominant position, and top company executives were threatening to resign if Woodruff didn’t bend on bottle size. In 1955, 10- and 12-ounce “King Size” Coke bottles hit the market, along with a 26-ounce “Family Size.” Although the new flexibility helped Coca-Cola regain its footing, the brave new world of giant bottles was hard to accept for some. Company vice president Ed Forio noted that “bringing out another bottle was like being unfaithful to your wife.”

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The trend toward larger sizes occurred in all sectors of the market. When Coca-Cola partnered with McDonald’s in the 1950s, the original fountain soda at the restaurant chain more closely approximated the classic Coke bottle at seven ounces. The largest cup size grew to 16 ounces in the 1960s and hit 21 ounces by 1974.

While the argument over soft drink sizing in New York City has at times been acrimonious, it has historically been even uglier. When Coca-Cola was gaining traction in the early 20th century, its leaders argued bitterly over whether they should go with a dainty 6-ounce bottle for sophisticated urbanites, or stick with the industry standard 8 ounces. The bottlers who advocated for the larger size insisted that it was more appropriate for the appetites of “negros.” (The term “black” didn’t gain legitimacy until the 1960s, with “African-American” gaining currency in the 1980s.) After Pepsi won market share by supersizing its bottles in the mid-20th century, the company went on a campaign to convince white Americans that Pepsi wasn’t just for people of color.

Soda Fountain Drink Size Changes.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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