At this point, RC Cola is pretty well pigeonholed as a regionalism—not quite so locally specific as Moxie or Cheerwine, maybe, but certainly without the octopus reach of Coke or Pepsi. It might’ve been otherwise, except RC got caught in sand trap after sand trap.

Mental Floss recently published a long history of the brand (which we saw via Digg), and it’s a chronicle of near-misses. Author Jeff Wells explains that:

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In an alternate—and completely plausible—universe, it would have given Coke and Pepsi a run for their money. At one point, it did. Believe it or not, Royal Crown Cola used to be one of the most innovative companies in the beverage industry. It came out with the first canned soda, the first caffeine-free soda, and the first 16-ounce soda. It was the first to take diet cola mainstream, and the first to stage nationwide taste tests.

The Royal Crown Cola Company got its start in the early 1900s in Columbus, Georgia, at the hands of a man annoyed Coca-Cola wouldn’t cut his grocery store a discount. Business really took off in the late ‘40s, after courts ruled that Coca-Cola did not have exclusive rights to the term “cola,” and Royal Crown began marketing “RC Cola” nationwide. They ran ads that featured stars like Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball and bragged about the flavor of their soda, backing up their claims with data they’d gotten from taste tests (before other companies were doing that).

But they really hit the jackpot in 1962, with the introduction of Diet Rite. Finally, somebody had well and truly cracked the diet soda market.

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When Diet Rite hit shelves in 1962, it was a smashing success. Within a year and a half of its release, it had rocketed up to number four on the sales chart, behind Coke, Pepsi, and regular RC Cola. America, it turned out, was ready for what had for years seemed oxymoronic: a healthy soda. The rest of the industry was in something close to a state of shock. “So stunning was Diet-Rite Cola’s impact on the soft drink market in the early 1960s,” reported Georgia Trend, “that its acceptance could be compared to the beginnings of mighty Coca-Cola itself some 75 years earlier.”

Tab, Coca-Cola’s first attempt at a diet soda, was rushed into existence after the advent of Diet Rite, and Pepsi followed shortly thereafter with Patio Cola.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last. There was a backlash against Diet Rite’s sugar substitute, cyclamate, the replacement sweetener was unpopular, and the diet soda business tanked for a time. Then came a bunch of business calls that didn’t work out, like buying Arby’s and—for some reason—seven different home furnishing companies. Meanwhile Coke and Pepsi dumped ungodly amounts of money into marketing their own products.

Wells notes that RC boasts an international business and sells particularly well in the Philippines, for instance. But the company just never managed to capitalize on those midcentury successes, and so RC Cola has remained largely a small-town and regional phenomenon, best illustrated by its long-running association with the Moon Pie.