An American Icon - Collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia
1927 window display
1927 window display
1927-coca-cola-window-display

With this year’s Christmas Coca-Cola adverts now busting onto television screens across the world, Wikicollecting’s thoughts turn to the history of collectibles related to this giant of advertising.

Coca-Cola retains the status of the most collectible brand in existence, a monopoly that arose out of a profound genius for merchandising, employed since the drink's auspicious origins in 1886.

Background

c.1896 cameo paper sign
c.1896 cameo paper sign
1896-coca-cola-cameo-sign

Coca-Cola was invented by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886, as a medicinal tonic containing cocaine and kola nut extracts. It is said that Pemberton spent more money advertising his drink than he took in from sales that first year of business, a dedication to and faith in advertising that undoubtedly had a great part to play in Coca-Cola’s rise from these questionable beginnings to becoming the most widely recognised soft drink brand in the world.

Pemberton exhibited a visionary genius for marketing his product that was almost unprecedented. The model set by Coca-Cola’s advertising campaign has been admired and often imitated by every company that has followed.

Its success can be boiled down to a distinctive logo and bottle design, that were so heavily advertised and sent so far across the continent and later the world that they were firmly imprinted in the public consciousness. They became synonymous with American culture and growing pop culture.

The endless array of promotional items that resulted from the brand’s mass merchandising since 1886 has therefore provided a considerable wealth of collectible items.

Collecting

1940 serving tray
1940 serving tray
1940-coca-cola-serving-tray

The worldwide collecting community for Coca-Cola memorabilia is one of the largest in existence. From those that collect the distinctive bottles, to those that splash out on antique advertisements, the interest in the brand and its history is persistent and widespread. There are numerous museums dedicated to the Coca-Cola brand, many of which grew out of private collections.

The fascination can be traced to the powerful iconography surrounding Coca-Cola and its associations, the historical interest in such a successful model of merchandising, and a simple nostalgia for the drink and the adverts that collectors grew up with.

Some examples of Coca-Cola memorabilia include but are in no way limited to:

Advertisements.

The earliest examples often feature the popular vaudeville singer Hilda Clark, who became the face of Coca-Cola from 1895 until 1903. The antique advertisements can take the form of:

  • Signs, the very earliest of which were produced on oilcloth and tin. These were called ‘tackers’, and designed to be nailed to wooden walls or fences outside places serving the new beverage. By the 1900s these were replaced by metal signs, often covered in porcelain. These antique signs often fetch the highest prices at auction. A 1900 tin sidewalk sign embossed with the sometime Coca-Cola slogan: Drink, Delicious, Refreshing sold for $55,00 in February 2007. The later example of a 1930s neon building clock and sign sold for $50,000 in March 2012.
  • Paper advertisements and posters. A c.1896 cameo paper sign sold for $105,000 in September 2011.
  • Newspaper advertisements.
  • Shop displays. A 36” light up leaded glass Coca-Cola bottle display from 1920 sold for $65,000 in September 2011.
1908 Coca-Cola calendar
1908 Coca-Cola calendar
1908-coca-cola-calendar

Promotional items

Promotional items were designed by Coca-Cola to be used in shops and bars that were selling the drink. These are rare, particularly the older examples, as they were not produced for public consumption. The most expensive item of Coca-Cola memorabilia ever sold was a vast marble and alabaster Coca-Cola soda fountain, an entire bar counter, made by Liquid Carbonic for the 1893 Columbian exposition of the Chicago World’s Fair. It sold for $4,475,000 in March 2012. Less hefty items include:

  • Coca-Cola coolers, the predecessors of vending machines, designed to keep the drink cold.
  • Coca-Cola soda dispensers and soda fountain urns
  • Coca-Cola Lamps
  • Coca-Cola Clocks
  • Coca-Cola thermometers
  • Coca-Cola glass globes. An early hanging Coca-Cola leaded glass globe light sold for $140,000 in September 2011.

*Annual Coca-Cola calendars. An 1898 calendar sold for $50,000 in September 2011. Later, these began to be produced for public consumption as they were so popular.

Merchandise

Many examples of early merchandise also feature Hilda Clark, who launched her career as the Coca-Cola model on a Coca-Cola serving tray. It is through merchandise that Coca-Cola became so eminently collectible. Items of merchandise have also been produced regularly that tie Coca-Cola to another brand, for example Betty Boop Coca-Cola dolls, which adds another angle of interest and connects multiple collecting communities. While Coca-Cola have produced almost any item of merchandise one could possibly imagine, from buttons, bikinis and marbles to pocket knives, socks and spatulas, some of the most long running and successful examples of Coca-Cola merchandise are:

  • Coca-Cola serving trays, from the earliest examples to those produced today. An 1897 ‘Victorian Girl’ serving tray, thought to be the very first lithographed tin tray used by the company, sold for $95,000 in September 2011.
  • Vintage Coca-Cola mirrors were produced in the late 1960s, and styled on earlier advertisements for that antiquey look.
  • Coca-Cola Glasses for quaffing your coke
1915 dispenser
1915 dispenser
1915-coca-cola-dispenser

The product itself

  • Bottles. The contours of the Coca-Cola bottle are a fundamental aspect of the brand. Collectors sometimes focus on bottles produced prior to 1916, before the contour bottle was introduced. Others seek commemorative bottles with limited designs, produced from the 1970s onwards, from the 75 year anniversary.
  • Labels. Similarly, various label designs have come out in limited runs and some people choose to gather these very inexpensive items of memorabilia.

Coca-Cola inspired

Coca-Cola’s symbolic link to American culture was duly noted by the pop art movement, and the brand was employed ironically or reverently in many works of art from the 1960s onwards. The most obvious example is Andy Warhol. But these Coca-Cola inspired items take us into another area of collecting, and far beyond most people’s price brackets.

A word to the wise

Generally, it is quite easy to date Coca-Cola memorabilia, from the distinctive slogans that varied from year to year: 1904’s Delicious and Refreshing, 1906’s The great national temperance beverage, 1917’s Three million a day, 1925’s Six million a day, 1945’s Coke means Coca-Cola, 1993’s Always Coca-Cola, up to 2012’s Open Happiness.

One thing to be aware of is that a mass American nostalgia boom during the 1970s created a huge amount of reproduction items, Coca-Cola merchandise and homages that emulated the antique and vintage designs, that continue to be produced today. These are not as valuable as genuine early examples.

On a budget

1951 Coca-Cola button
1951 Coca-Cola button
1951-coca-cola-button

While we have provided several examples of the highest prices Coca-Cola items have fetched at auctions in the past, this is no way representative of the price bracket for coke collectibles in general.

The highest prices at auction go to significant early items of advertising and promotion. Yet it is so easy to obtain wonderful items, including antique and vintage pieces, for a much more affordable pirce. For the one antique advertisement that sells for thousands at auction, there are ten slightly less historically significant, perhaps slightly dog-eared examples, that can be picked up for a fraction of the top prices.

The sheer amount of advertising and merchandise produced, pretty much from the very beginning of the brand, allows for a fruitful breadth of collecting opportunities and really spoils the collector for choice.

Notable Auction

In the last year, the world’s largest collection of Coca Cola memorabilia was auctioned off in a two part sale. The Schmidt museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia had some of the most valuable and historically significant Coca-Cola collectibles, which were offered by Richard Opfer Auctioneering in September 2011 and March 2012. This significant sale brought numerous desirable items back into public hands, and spread them around for numerous collectors to enjoy.

Resources

The Coca-Cola Collectors Club was founded in 1974, and boasts over 3,500 members worldwide. They host events and swap meets, provide online trading forums and information sharing resources, as well as regular newsletters and a shop offering limited edition collectibles. They have regional chapters all across the United States and Canada, and some now in other countries.

See also

Main article: Coca-Cola collectibles and memorabilia
Main article: Top 10 most expensive Coca-Cola collectibles
Main article: Schmidt museum of Coca-Cola memorabilia
Main article: Coca-Cola Collectors Club
Main article: Advertising collectibles

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