A Century of
Paper Puts the 'Fizz' in Coca-Cola
By Phil Mooney
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By the late 19th century, soda fountains were well
established in the United States offering consumers a wide variety
of carbonated fruit and herb-based beverages and serving a very
important social function as a local gathering place. In the spring
of 1886, Atlanta pharmacist John S. Pemberton introduced a dramatically
new cola-based soft drink into this very competitive environment,
a drink he called Coca-Cola. While Pemberton only sold about nine
glasses a day of his new concoction during its first year, Coca-Cola
began to gain popularity with consumers, and by the turn of the
century, it was available at soda fountains throughout the country.
became seriously ill shortly after the introduction of Coca-Cola,
and died in 1888 before the product ever achieved widespread success.
However, control of this product passed to Asa G. Candler, another
Atlanta pharmacist who purchased total control of Coca-Cola for
an investment of about $2,300. Candler had a successful background
in marketing other consumer products, and he was very innovative
in his approach to marketing and advertising Coca-Cola. From the
use of utilitarian premiums for soda fountain operators such as
syrup urns, serving trays, clocks, change receivers, and calendars,
to the distribution of free drink coupons and the employment of
celebrities in magazine advertising, Candler used a multi-faceted
approach to insure that Coca-Cola was a product that consumers recognized
and sampled. By the time Candler sold the business in 1919, Coca-Cola
was the dominant soft drink in the marketplace.
While Candler believed in the possibilities for unfettered
growth in the soda fountain business, he was less enthusiastic about
Coca-Cola as a bottled beverage. Consequently, when Benjamin Thomas
and Joseph Whitehead, two lawyers from Chattanooga, Tennessee, approached
Candler about bottling Coca-Cola in 1899, Candler awarded them the
right to develop geographic franchises for Coca-Cola bottling operations
for a dollar. This agreement provided the basis for the creation
of a global bottling network that remains in place today
a network that made Thomas and Whitehead very wealthy men.
The Coca-Cola Company manufactures syrups and concentrates
and provides technical and marketing support to bottlers who distribute
bottled and canned products to retailers.
For generations of Americans, Coca-Cola was available for a nickel
in one of two forms: a chilled, freshly dispensed glass of Coca-Cola
at the soda fountain or a 6 1/2oz. embossed bottle of Coke. Only
after World War II did the standard price of Coca-Cola move from
the traditional five cents, while larger-sized bottles and convenient
aluminum cans all but eliminated the standard contour bottle from
Today, the Coca-Cola Company distributes more than
400 soft-drink products in more than 200 countries. Every day more
than a billion drinks are consumed around the globe, a far cry from
the humble beginnings at an Atlanta soda fountain nearly 120 years
Central to the success of Coca-Cola is a rich legacy
of advertising, marketing, and promotional materials designed to
stimulate sales among consumers and to encourage the sales force
to pursue new opportunities at the retail outlets they serviced.
Originally produced as sales incentives, these materials have become
desirable collectibles often commanding premium prices at antique
shows, conventions, flea markets, and auctions. While a dedicated
group of fans have formed a 5,000-member organization called The
Coca-Cola Collectors Club, thousands of other collectors have at
least a few trademarked pieces in their homes. Books and articles
have been written on such high profile collectibles as calendars,
posters, trays, toys, bottles, signs, vending machines, and fountain
dispensers, but for many collectors, it is the ephemeral pieces
that are the most difficult to find and that define their unique
areas of specialization.
Among the more interesting collectibles are the transactional
documents produced by the Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers. Early
form letters, envelopes, bottler letterhead, invoices, receipts,
and checks were produced in a wide variety of designs, reflecting
the lack of standardization in the system and the evangelistic nature
of the business itself. Until the late 1920s, bottlers did not adopt
uniform stationery designs for their communications, resulting in
an incredible array of colorful and dynamic graphics that document
an emerging enterprise.
From the beginning of bottling at the turn of the
century, a number of different bottles were used for Coca-Cola.
Most were generic straight-sided bottles similar to those used in
the brewing industry, produced in a range of sizes and colors with
ever-changing positioning of the trademark. While this lack of consistency
caused confusion among consumers, the resulting differentiation
in letterhead design provides fertile ground for collectors.
Bottler letterheads provide a wealth of information
on the early marketing of Coca-Cola and on the overall soft drink
industry. Photos of individual plants, lists of the local management,
advertising slogans, illustrations of bottles and merchandising
materials, pricing structures, and references to other soft drink
products distributed by these entrepreneurs adorn the pages of these
documents. Prices in this category generally range from $25 to $75.
With more than 1,000 bottling plants operating in the 1920s, there
are unlimited opportunities for collectors to assemble a wide geographic
range of plant literature.
Letterhead from the Coca-Cola Company itself tends
to command slightly higher prices because it is more difficult to
find and has stronger graphic appeal. Envelopes from the 1890s advertise
Coca-Cola as the "Ideal Brain Tonic" and a "Delightful
Summer and Winter Beverage," while company stationery displays
images of the Atlanta headquarters building and the network of syrup
plants scattered across the country. Letters from the 1890s frequently
sell in the $500 area if signed by Asa Candler, while early 20th
century stationery is more frequently in the $150 area. For both
company and bottler letterhead, demand decreases markedly when standardization
is implemented in the 1920s.
stimulate demand for Coca-Cola, the company and a network of suppliers
produced large quantities of literature describing various sales
aids that were available to bottlers and soda fountain operators.
During the first few decades of distribution, these publications
largely consisted of small pamphlets brochures and printed
lists outlining the promotional items available to them, but by
1923 advertising price books became much more sophisticated. Issued
on a yearly basis with occasional supplements, these catalogues
depicted metal signs, posters, serving trays, calendars, cardboard
display pieces, toys, games, notepads, and more. Each volume was
heavily illustrated, often in full color, providing detailed descriptions
of each item. The purpose behind the publication was to encourage
the bottlers to purchase advertising materials for their markets,
but collectors today use them as an invaluable reference source
for dating their materials. Older catalogues regularly sell in the
$250 to $400 range, while those produced in the 1950s and 1960s
will move for around $50.
Supplier-produced brochures and pamphlets supplemented
the company-issued catalogues. Handbills, folders, and brochures
proclaimed the virtues of dolls, toy airplanes and trucks, book
matches, cigarette lighters, and dozens of other promotional items.
These communications were mailed directly to bottlers and did not
survive in large quantities. They generally retail between $100
The other major category of internally oriented literature
is material intended for the sales force that serviced the bottlers
and soda fountain accounts. To challenge salesmen to achieve ever-increasing
volume growth, creative contests featuring cash awards and attractive
premiums appeared annually with supporting literature. Additionally,
the sales force used customized brochures to sell dealers on the
merits of such merchandising innovations as the six-pack carton,
soda fountain dispensing equipment, and the standardized cooler.
In most cases, these brochures never circulated outside the trade
and are valued for the detailed information they contain on their
The vast majority of ephemera produced for Coca-Cola
was directed to consumers. Among the earliest items produced to
support this fledging product were trade cards and sampling coupons.
The earliest trade cards produced in the 1890s were standard stock
cards featuring scenes of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, floral
designs, and pastoral scenes. Imprinted on the face of these cards
were advertising slogans for Coca-Cola while the reverse documented
sales increases of fountain Coke. By the turn of the century, advertising
expenditures had increased to allow the production of customized
trade cards showing attractive women drinking Coca-Cola at the fountain,
but the reverse continued to extol the virtues of this popular soft
drink. These trade cards are very difficult to find and command
premium prices ranging from $1,000 to $5,000.
One of Asa Candler's most efficient promotional
concepts was the distribution of sampling coupons offering consumers
a free glass of Coca-Cola at a local soda fountain. Candler pioneered
this concept and succeeded in exposing thousands of consumers to
his new product. Many consumers received these coupons by direct
mail or retrieved them from one of the popular magazines of the
day, but many others were handed the coupons by salesmen standing
on street corners.
early coupons measure 3 3/8 inches by 1 3/8 inches and use a wide
variety of designs and colors. Some featured musical hall performer
Hilda Clark on the front while others simply proclaimed the availability
of a free glass of Coca-Cola. Once established, couponing became
a standard element in the promotional mix. Coupons issued by the
Coca-Cola Company were produced on beautifully illustrated card
stock that used artwork from such famous illustrators as Norman
Rockwell and Haddon Sundblom, the creator of the famous Santa Claus
images for Coca-Cola. Early coupons generally sell in the $500 to
$1,000 range, while those produced in the 1920s to the 1950s are
usually priced in the $20 to $50 area. Other early promotional items
targeted to consumers were bookmarks with a Coca-Cola advertising
message. Celluloid bookmarks first appeared in the 1880s followed
by paper at the turn of the century featuring both opera star Lillian
Nordica and Hilda Clark.
The no-drip bottle protectors or dry servers were used from the
late 1920s to the 1940s to protect furniture and keep hands dry.
These plastic sleeves fit over a contour bottle of Coca-Cola and
used advertising images that were also seen in newspapers and magazines.
Because they were produced in very large volumes, they can be found
rather easily at collector shows for very reasonable prices. Only
the rarest of the dry servers sell for more than $10.
Napkins and cardboard fans have endured as highly
collectible items. Early napkins distributed from 1900 1915
usually featured illustrations that also appeared in magazine advertising
or used an unusual combination of that advertising interspersed
with scenes of Asian lifestyles. Similarly, cardboard fans from
the early 20th century displayed ornate Japanese images on one side
with standard Coca-Cola advertising on the reverse. Most of the
fans produced from the 1920s through the 1950s promote bottled Coca-Cola
with an illustration of the famous contour bottle. The oldest fans
sell in the area of $300 to $400, but most are found regularly for
$50 to $100. In addition to the fans produced and distributed by
the company, many of the bottlers also created fans for their customers.
These fans will reference a particular bottling plant and will utilize
stock imagery on the front with a customized message on the reverse.
With the advent of television in the 1950s, new advertising
items linked popular local and national programs with consumer products
like Coca-Cola. Customized colorful cardboard inserts measuring
about 3 x 7 inches were developed as inserts to sixpack carton
displays of Coke at supermarkets. These inserts offered Flash Gordon
shirts, Rootie Kazootie puppets, Sheriff Bob Dixon outdoor tips,
and Kit Carson 3-D punch-out figures. In addition to the TV promotions,
the New York bottler issued a series of inserts for the 1952 Dodgers,
Giants, and Yankees that are highly prized among sports enthusiasts.
A single baseball insert has a value of at least $150, while the
complete set of 10 will net $3,000 or more.
inserts abounded in the 1950s, particularly during the Christmas
season. Santa Claus, choirboys, elves, and clowns decorated the
"carton stuffers," all of which included additional cutout
accessories that could be added to the main piece. Halloween promotions
offered four different miniature "fun masks," while Thanksgiving
offerings allowed children to create their own place cards from
Postcards may constitute the broadest collectible
arena, as the sources of these materials are extensive. The company,
bottlers, suppliers, and general photographers all produced cards
targeted for specific audiences. At the turn of the century, direct-mail
postcards were sent to soda fountain operators throughout the United
States promoting the refreshing properties of Coca-Cola and providing
specific ordering instructions. The cards had the very practical
objective of increasing sales. No illustrations or fancy graphics
accompanied the core message. By 1911, however, the strategy had
changed. The same "Coca-Cola Girl" that was used on the
1910 calendar now appeared on a postcard designed for general consumer
use. A second postcard called the "Motor Girl" showed
an attractive woman at the wheel of a horseless carriage, drinking
from a straight-sided bottle of Coca-Cola. Other Company-issued
cards depicted branch offices and the Atlanta headquarters building.
Bottler-themed cards usually document the bottling
plant itself showing exterior views of the facility or interior
photographs of the production process. Frequently the cards would
be distributed to school groups and local citizens as a souvenir
of their visit to the plant. Vehicle manufacturers also generated
cards showing the route trucks that delivered Coca-Cola to stores,
while other suppliers to the industry used postcards to advertise
their particular goods or services.
Still, the largest category of collectible postcards
is that produced by individual photographers working to capture
segments of the American landscape. In capturing images of urban
lifestyles, regional landmarks and the daily activities of the common
man, the pervasiveness of advertising for Coca-Cola is revealed.
Soda fountains and drug stores have window displays, neon signs,
menu boards, posters, and streamlined dispensing equipment naturally
appearing in the scenes of their daily operations. Painted wall
signs mark key crossroads, brilliant neon spectaculars dominate
the skylines of major cities, and restaurants, gas stations, and
country stores all display the familiar red discs advertising Coke.
One of the tenets governing the advertising strategy is to insure
is always "Within An Arms Reach of Desire." In thousands
of postcards, collectors can find the absolute execution of that
philosophy. Fortunately, most postcards are very affordable, usually
available for a dollar or two. With a bit of perseverance, you can
accumulate a wide geographic representation of advertising for a
very small investment.
In an article of this type, it is possible only to
scratch the surface of the ephemera that has been created in support
of this brand. At best, it is a snapshot of selected categories
and avenues that have helped to market Coca-Cola for over a century.
For a more detailed look at other collectible categories, Allan
Petretti's Coca-Cola Price Guide, now in its 11th edition,
serves as the Bible for serious "Cokeaholics." Additionally,
a visit to The World of Coca-Cola in downtown Atlanta provides visitors
an opportunity to see more than 1,200 advertising pieces that are
on permanent display there.
Today, Coca-Cola enjoys the reputation of being the
world's most recognized trademark, a distinction that was earned
through strong leadership, innovative marketing and pervasive advertising.
For ephemera collectors, the legacy of those foundational cornerstones
are the thousands of paper items that have survived their intended
use and have moved into a collectibles hall of fame.