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The Coke Bottle

Kevin Hackett
Jan 1, 2008
Epcp_0801_01_z+coca_cola+front_view Photo 1/1   |   Coca-Cola - Icon

A triumph of marketing know-how, this glass container is undoubtedly the most important piece of consumer design the world has ever known. Its shape has barely changed in 90 years, and its fluted sides and waisted middle tell even the blind that what they're holding is a bottle of Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola was created on May 8, 1886, in Atlanta, Georgia. A pharmacist by the name of Dr. John Stith Pemberton waltzed down to Jacobs' Pharmacy carrying a jug of his new syrup and the pharmacy's proprietors, after sampling it and pronouncing it 'excellent,' put it on sale for five cents a glass. The syrup was mixed with carbonated water and a legend was born.

Pemberton's business partner and book-keeper, Frank M. Robinson, gave the new drink its name, a brilliantly simple combination of coca (the leaf) and kola (the nut), which were two of the principal ingredients in the unusual syrup's recipe. An expert penman, Robinson wrote out the name of the product in the Spencerian-style script of the time and it has barely changed since. Pemberton died just two years after formulating Coca-Cola, never seeing his invention's potential. He'd sold his shares in the tiny business (sales averaged nine servings a day for the first year) to another Atlanta businessman, Asa G. Candler who, along with Robinson and a small group of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, proceeded to market Coca-Cola to an ever-increasing customer base. The business expanded rapidly under Candler's direction and, recognizing the power of advertising and product placement, he made sure the trademarked script was attached to as many souvenir mugs, clocks and calendars as was humanly possible.

Bottling of Coca-Cola started in 1894 when, impressed by the volume of sales at his store, Mississippi-based Joseph A. Biedenham installed bottling machinery at the rear of his premises. Large-scale operations soon followed with another, forward-thinking group of Tennessee businessmen securing a license from Candler to bottle and sell the drink to America at large. Within two decades, a couple of bottling plants had grown to more than 1000.

As World War I was just getting into its hideous stride, Coca-Cola declared its own war on what it deemed to be public enemy number one-purveyors of imitation Coke. Advertisements with slogans such as 'Accept no substitutes' and 'Demand the genuine' weren't enough. What the company needed was a package that would identify its product as the real thing. During the early part of the 20th century, drink bottles were all very similar. What differentiated the various brands were their labels, but the problem with labelling bottles was that when they got wet, the labels fell off. Keeping drinks cool in those days usually meant storing them in boxes of ice water-a group of unidentifiable bottles swimming around meant customers were often none the wiser as to what brand they were selecting. Thus Coca-Cola decided to supply its drink in a bottle so individual that, even minus its label, it would be recognizable instantly as containing 'the real thing.' Various myths surround the actual story of how the design came about, but the generally accepted tale is as follows:

The job of designing and manufacturing this new bottle was given to the Root Glass Company in TerreHaute, Indiana, where Swedish-born Alexander Samuelsson was plant manager. In 1915, a heat wave caused a temporary suspension of manufacturing operations. Alexander had some spare time on his hands and decided that the bottle's appearance, like the product's name, should take its inspiration from its exotic ingredients, the coca leaf and the kola nut. Sending one of his staff to the town library to learn more about the two ingredients, legend has it that the ill-informed assistant researched the wrong item, sketching the outline of a cacao tree seed pod (from which cocoa and chocolate are made). He returned to the office with his sketches and the bottle's signature curves started to take shape on the drawing board. Examining the shape of the cacao pod, it's difficult to reconcile it with the Coke bottle's pronounced curves. Whatever; it's a good story and it's the one Coca-Cola has been telling for decades. A year later, in 1916, the bottle (which soon came to be known as the 'hobble skirt' bottle) was introduced throughout the US. It worked too, with sales soaring as the bottle's shape became intrinsically linked with feeling good. During World War II, Coca-Cola set up bottling plants overseas so troops could experience some of the familiar things from home. The net result was global awareness once peace resumed.

As with the Porsche 911, the Coke bottle's lines have been subtly tweaked and modernized over the years, but the overall shape has stayed true to its origins. The drink is now available in plastic containers, cans and paper cups, but there's nothing quite like swigging ice-cold Coke from a real glass bottle. Respected designer Raymond Loewy, who reworked the shape in 1954, claimed: "The Coke bottle is the most perfectly designed package in the world." Who's going to argue with that?

By Kevin Hackett
10 Articles

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