A Century of Paper Puts the ‘Fizz’ in Coca-Cola

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February 13, 2013 by Ephemera Society

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By Phil Mooney

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.

Pemberton 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 supermarket shelves.

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 ago.

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.

To 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 and $500.

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 subjects.

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.

The 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 six–pack 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.

Holiday-themed 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 the inserts.

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 that Coca-Cola 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.


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