Chattanooga attorney and businessman Joseph B. Whitehead, along with Benjamin F. Thomas and J. T. Lupton, pioneered the Coca-Cola bottling industry. Born in Oxford, Mississippi, he received a law degree from the University of Mississippi. In the late 1880s he moved to Chattanooga, where he specialized in tax and business law. In 1896 he became involved in the New Spencer Medicine Company and served as vice-president. Three years later, he joined Thomas in his plan to bottle and distribute Coca-Cola. In July 1899 the two signed an agreement with Asa Candler, president of Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, giving them exclusive bottling rights throughout most of the United States. In order to raise capital to open the first bottling plant, Whitehead and Thomas added John Thomas Lupton to the partnership. The plant opened in the summer of 1899. Whitehead served as the first president of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, chartered in November 1899.
Early in 1900 Whitehead moved to Atlanta to open the second bottling plant and continued to live there for the remainder of his life. In April 1900 the partners split the bottling territory in order to create bottling franchises. Whitehead and Lupton took the territory south of Chattanooga and the West, with the exception of the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. The two partners created such “parent” bottlers as the Dixie Coca-Cola Bottling Company in the South, Coca-Cola Bottling Company (1903) in the Southwest, and Western Coca-Cola Bottling Company (1905) in the West. These “parent” companies granted franchises to local bottlers in what proved to be one of the most enriching and successful franchise businesses in American economic history.
Whitehead managed the bottling interests in Atlanta until his death from pneumonia in 1906 at age forty-two. He had married Lettie Pate (1872-1953) of Thaxton, Virginia, in 1894. They had two sons, Joe and Conkey, who both died relatively young. Lettie married Arthur Evans in 1913, and continued to be active in her first husband’s affairs, especially in connection with Coca-Cola and various philanthropic works. In 1934 she became the first woman elected to the Coca-Cola Company board of directors and remained a director until her death. The Whiteheads are buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.
Ned L. Irwin, “Bottling Gold: Chattanoogas Coca-Cola Fortunes,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 51 (1992): 223-37