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Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

You'd figure something started by a Coke fiend and accelerated by the Great Depression couldn't be good for the nation, but coupons aren't half-bad.


If you're a coupon-clipper, raise a glass of Coca-Cola in honor of Asa Candler, who invented the concept.

In 1894, Candler bought the secret formula for Coke. Some of his business dealings may have been ethically questionable, but Candler certainly knew his consumers - and he knew they liked a bargain.

Candler made Coke a hit by giving it away for free, distributing handwritten coupons that entitled each bearer to one glass. Soda fountains didn't mutiny, because Candler also gave them Coke-flavored syrup for free.

Within a year, every state in the U.S. had a soda fountain that served Coke. By 1913, nine million Americans (one out of every nine people!) had taken a free sip - and that initial investment started to pay off.

Meanwhile, other entrepreneurs had taken note, including C.W. Post, who printed coupons that took a cent off the price of his bizarrely named cereal, Grape Nuts.

Once the Depression hit, coupon-clipping wasn't just sensible, it was necessary. And by 1998, coupons were such a part of American culture they got their own monthlong celebration. If you want to start planning your National Coupon Month party, it's in September.


You may have heard early catalogs referred to as "dream books" - lifestyle porn for rural families that didn't have access to department stores. But the first catalogs weren't all that dreamy, nor were they books. Instead, they were simple one-sheet inventory lists, produced without the benefit of photos or snazzy copywriting.

Businessman Aaron Montgomery Ward came up with the concept in 1872, the year after his entire inventory was destroyed by the great fire of Chicago.

Ward started over, sending out a single sheet of paper listing 163 types of dry goods available only by mail. Dry goods suppliers in rural areas were so angry about their new competitor, they made a public habit of burning the catalog.

But there's a reason you've heard of Montgomery Ward and you haven't heard of any of those local guys - ultimately, they couldn't compete with the more sophisticated stuff Ward was selling, especially once the mail-order catalogs got thicker and started featuring pictures.

The catalogs also had another selling point - in a pinch, they made excellent bathroom tissue. Toilet paper was considered a luxury and wasn't widely available.

Adapted from In the Beginning (HarperCollins), available at leading bookstores. For a daily dose of quirky fun, visit and check out mental_floss magazine at your local newsstand.