The ‘contour’ Coca-Cola bottles — that fabulous fistful of beady glass which together with some sparkling flavour, made one company a national and then global marketing giant.
It’s a rare treat to actually hold a contoured Coke bottle that’s not a mixer here in Ireland, and given its admirable modernity, it’s easy to forget that this treasure of merchandising design is a full century old this year.
An Atlanta pharmacist, Dr. John Styth Pemberton, is credited with the still highly secret blend for Coca Cola, first mixed and tasted by barman Willis Venables in 1886, and touted as an all round feel-good brain tonic for the warmer months.
The sweeping Spenserian Coca-Cola script (the typical educated writing style of the day) was the creation of John Pemberton’s book-keeper, who was creative beyond his brief, coming up with the name too.
Initially the Coke syrup, which including a terrifying dash of real cocaine, was added directly to plain, carbonated water or served by soda ‘jerks’ at local drug stores. Interestingly, the syrup is still made up with water by some larger food service outlets today.
Still, in 1894 having been beaten to the mark by one of his suppliers, Joseph Biedenharn, who was privately bottling Coke for customers going on picnics, tantalising bottles of Coca-Cola were brought to market by Asa G Candler, who bought Coca-Cola from Pemberton in 1888. Full of energy, Candler seriously touted his drink with all sorts of offers on free goods and prizes for loyal cola drinkers.
These early Hutchinson bottles and later, straight-sided bottles, used in the 1920s, can command two to even three figure sums today.
The rights to bottling Coca-Cola became enormously valuable, and in 1900 they were snatched up by two foresighted lawyers, Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas.
By 1920, Coca-Cola on tap and in bottles was being sold in all states across the country with 1,200 bottling plants operating under license to The Coca-Cola Bottling Company.
Coca-Cola was besieged by competition and cheeky imitators who would change one or two letters in the name for their own caramel style beverage (who could resist trying a Koka-Nola).
Straight sided, 6” stoppered, brown ‘pop’ bottles were commonplace and dull, even emblazoned with Coke’s diamond shaped logo and their magical contents.
The executives at Coca-Cola determined on packaging more distinct that just the script or the design of the label, something possibly textured that could be instantly recognised — even hunting for the drink in the dark.
The trustees were so enthused by the idea of brand recognition in the glass, that the then huge prize-money of $500 was devoted to the development of the bottle in league with the bottling companies contracted to Coca-Cola.
The contour bottle’s design was honed between 1915 and 1920, and achieved that feminine line largely from moulding supervisor Earl R Dean, and a team of four workers at the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute in the state of Indiana.
Patented in the name of shop foreman Alexander Samuelsson, Samuelsson is sometimes erroneously credited as the designer of the prototype. The bulbous upper portion with its vertical soft grooves was taken from an illustration in Encyclopaedia Britannica of a cocoa pod.
They played around with the shape, as early versions proved unstable when upright and rocked off the factory belt.
Released in 1916 to four bottling firms, in 1920, the hefty 14.5oz bottle in green German or Georgia glass was gifted a less pregnant form, a sinuous girl retaining a ribbed corset that plays beneath the fingers.
The enticing coloured glass with its hygienic metal ‘crown’ top, became an advertising standard for the company, and in terms of design, the shape of the contour bottle remains one the most recognised symbols across the World along with the VW Bug and the Christian cross.
Industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who drew up new family sized bottles in the 1950s, famously described the 1920 Mae West bottles, as ‘the perfect liquid wrapper’.
CEO of Coca-Cola, Robert Woodruff, refused to appear on the cover of Time magazine in 1950. He suggested a picture of their then clear contour bottle star instead — which it did, crossing a new line for a commercial product between advertising and editorial.
Bottles were by then produced in the beloved shape from 6.5 to 26oz with the name of the bottling company moulded in the base, and the patent moulded beneath the name on the bottle.
The variety of producers and sizes spurs the interest of collectors today. Early six pack carriers (introduced in 1923) with a full set of period bottles are highly prized.
The year of production of the mould is moulded in the first four digits on the bottle base.
Pre-1950s bottles may carry the name of the city in which the bottles were produced — an interesting touch. White applied print, rather than textured lettering appeared in 1957.
On April 12 1977, Coca-Cola’s iconic packaging achieved the unusual status of a trademark even without the name Coca-Cola printed on it — the line was enough.
Coca-Cola was, and is perceived as being the national drink of Americans.
Every hiss released seemed to speak of the very essence of the state-side spirit, and little wonder Andy Warhol chose it in the 1960s as one of his repeating, levelling, universal symbols of popular culture.
For more information on collecting early Coca-Cola bottles go to: www.coca-colacompany.com