For over a hundred years the giant of the soft drink world has cranked out tip trays, bottles, coolers, toys, records, pencils, greeting cards, almost anything that could be emblazoned with Coca-Cola. A bigger cultural icon than McDonalds, Coke transcends it's role of sating thirst with a century of advertising social commentary.
My fondness for Coca-Cola collecting reaches back into my youth; in the early fifties, I would try to figure out how to acquire another nickel to spend on a "refreshing" Coke. I would race off to the soda fountain and spin on a bar stool while the soda jerk pulled my drink, or bury my hand into the ice cold water of the cooler down at the corner druggist.
Founded in 1886 by Dr. John S. Pemberton in Atlanta, Georgia, the drink was first sold from a fountain at Jacobs Pharmacy, a local drug store. A syrup concoction originally intended as a remedy for stomach ailments and a general energy booster, Coke's active ingredient was cocaine. Remarketed as a beverage rather than a drug, the cocaine was removed.
The move that made Coke the most recognized product in the world (over 94% of the world's population know the distinctive swirled trademark) was the death of Pemberton in 1888 and subsequent sale of the recipe and trademark to Atlanta businessman Asa Candler.
An insightful advertiser, Candler set about aggressively marketing Coca-Cola, giving incentives to soda fountains that sold a high volume of the syrup. Stained glass lamp shades, calendars, tip trays, thermometers and more were given as incentives, as well as the ultimate premium- a beautiful ceramic porcelain urn, for selling over 100 gallons of syrup.
By 1895 an entire nation was drinking the "ideal brain tonic" that "relieved mental and physical exhaustion". Some of the earliest celebrity advertising endorsements were produced by Coca-Cola; featuring glamorous stage actresses and opera singers like Hilda Clark and Lilian Nordica.
The '50s saw a real intensification in what would later be described as "the Cola wars", with even Vice President Richard Nixon in on the act (he purposefully stood in front of a Pepsi sign while facing Khruschev in the Kitchen Debate). Coke took on the challenge with a vigorous campaign of addressing the needs of different drinkers. In 1955, King size family bottles were introduced at 39 cents a quart. The cola manufacturer also offered the drinking public a "choice" that year, producing the first 6.5 oz bottles of Fanta. Bottles were made less expensively with an applied color label (The ACL that are on bottles of that era) rather than the previously embossed (Mae West) bottles. The earlier embossed bottles sell generally between $40 and $50 [as of publication in 1994].
In 1959, to satisfy a more mobile public, the first 12 oz flat top cans were test marketed. In 1961, the first "throw away" bottles were introduced. Because of litter problems, the disposable bottle was short lived. Today disposable bottles are eagerly sought after by collectors and can command over $500.00.
Bottles and cans are identifiable by the changing shapes, slogans, and logos that Coke used throughout the years. Coke has initiated eight major revamps of their logo and message throughout the years; silhouette girl ('30s), wings ('40s), gold bottle ('50s), button ('50s), fishtail ('60s), dynamic wave ('70s) and polar bear ('90s).
Coca-Cola realized early on, while making soft drink history, that advertising and memorabilia were important legacies to be preserved. Almost everything that Coke ever produced is catalogued and identified by the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. This extensive reference source makes it easy to identify Coke collectables.
The number of items besides bottles that Coca-Cola produced or licensed is indeed vast, but the common denominator of all these collectables is that Coke always approved the quality, and often the quantity produced. For example, popular Christmas lines like ornaments and trays are sometimes only produced for one year, and seldom over three without changing the style.
Through the years, there have been reproductions of Coca-Cola items. Some of these "fantasy" or black market items, made without the company's approval, are quite collectable themselves, like the infamous topless advertising issued by the Western Coca-Cola Bottling Company. The most common reproductions are tip trays, and they are usually lighter in weight and without the black back of the original.
Coca-Cola collectables are in high demand today, with prices climbing. Record breaking prices on the East Coast have not fully diffused to the West Coast yet, but we can expect prices to appreciate here very soon. With the increase in interest and subsequent increase in prices, a new guide book can be a big help. Guides printed even a year and a half ago [c.1994] seem like an historical perspective of what the market was, rather than an accurate reflection of current prices. So if you want to begin your Coca-Cola collection, or find a recent price guide for a ball park reference, look at auction sheets and talk to the dealers.
The field is truly diverse ranging from delivery
trucks, cups, bottles, coolers to soccer balls; from Coke, New Coke, Diet
Coke, etc. and sister companies like Sprite, Fresca, OK Soda, et al. I
hope you find collecting the real thing a pause that refreshes. -Lois Wildman
For 80+ articles on Antiques and Collectables: