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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Dope Wagons

by Richard Rankin, 2006

Dope wagons were carts laden with snacks and soft drinks that circulated through North Carolina and other southern textile mills to provide workers with food and beverages. The dope wagon's name was derived from the nickname of one of its most commonly sold products-a "dope," or a bottle of Coca-Cola. With the advent of soda pop and packaged foods, the dope wagon was introduced into the cotton mill setting sometime during the first two decades of the twentieth century. It certainly was a fixture in the mills by the late 1920s. Because it allowed workers to remain on the job while they ate and drank, the dope wagon was suited ideally to the needs of owners determined to increase production in the era of the "speed-up" and the "stretch-out." The dope wagon gradually disappeared, replaced by the canteen and snack bar of modern textile factories.

Additional Resources:

Dope Wagon, Our State Magazine: https://www.ourstate.com/dope-wagon/

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Comments

Comment: 

The soda (dope) and BC powder explanations are both correct. Workers noticed that if they took a BC powder with a caffeinated beverage they got a "buzz", thus the basis for calling a soda a "dope". It was (and is) quite common to refer to a soft drink as a "dope" in any context, not just BC powder. We used to paraphrase the musical phrase "Shave and a haircut, two bits" to "Dope and a hot dog, two bits." In those days you could get a soft drink and a hot dog for a quarter.

Comment: 

I lived for 4 years in Cleveland County as a child in the early 1960's. The folks there called any type of soda a "dope". I have lived in various other parts of NC and never heard this terminology other than Cleveland County.

Comment: 

I think you're incorrect about why they called it a dope wagon for it was called a dope wagon because it sold BC Powders Wich are a medicine that we use here a lot North Carolina. there was a lot of noise in the mills that caused a lot of headaches for the people so they took the BC Powders to keep the headaches down

Comment: 

Dear Joe,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and especially for taking the time to share your comment.

Our understanding is that historians are uncertain exactly where the reference to "dope" wagons came from apart from the assocation with Coca-cola, although your understanding makes complete sense too.  Do you happen to have seen this reference anywhere that you could share with me?  I would be very happy to look into it and include additional information in NCpedia if we have more information.

Feel free to post back here. I have also replied to you at the email you included with your comment.

Thank you again and best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library

Comment: 

While Joe is correct in his statement I would like to respectfully disagree as that was the defining term for "dope wagon". Coming from a long line of relatives, including myself, having worked in the mills (Mayfair Mills circa 1973 to 1975), I was told by grandparents that the term "dope wagon" derived from the fact that the original formula for Coke contained a drug. The original contained coca leaves which in raw form were mildly euphoric I believe. Hence the word "dope" in the old southern term "soda dope". The cliche for taking a short break from work of going after a "dope and a pack of nab's" meant getting a soft drink and a pack of crackers, always on sale from the dope wagon.

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