Bobby Liao discusses collecting Coca-Cola commemorative bottles and other memorabilia, and discusses vintage Coke advertising items and the history of the company and its bottlers. Based in Palo Alto, California, Bobby can be reached via his website, Bobby’s Coca-Cola on the Web, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I started collecting Coca-Cola in 1994. The World Cup soccer games were being hosted at the Stanford Stadium and I saw Coke bottles commemorating the World Cup games on the shelves. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” so I bought a six-pack. I noticed that the bottles had different flags representing the countries that were participating in the World Cup games. I started looking for all of them, and eventually I got a whole set. There were six different flags.
Now, pretty much everywhere I go, I look for bottles. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve lost track, but I think I have about 5,000 bottles and cans. I ran out of space to display them, so I put them in storage. I just keep some of the ones that I really like on display.
There’s one grand-opening bottle I picked up in Fiji for a new bottling plant. We happened to be going through Fiji, so I looked in the phone book to find out where the bottling plant was. We took a bus and a taxi to the factory, and I knocked on the door and said, “We’re collectors from the United States. Can we come in for a tour?” The security guard was caught off guard, but they were really nice. Fijians are wonderful people, very hospitable. The security guard contacted marketing, and then marketing contacted someone in the plant, and a young lady came out to greet us. My wife and I were able to get a private tour.
It was a relatively new plant. It opened in 1995 and we were there in 1998. There was a special commemorative bottle in the display case and I said, “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those bottles?” The person that escorted us said, “You know what, I have one on my desk. Here, let me go get it.” That just shows how wonderful the people were. We had a great time there and it was memorable because we traveled a long way and we really didn’t know there was a bottle.
We picked up other bottles locally from the markets in Fiji, but that was a special bottle. Up until that time, I don’t think anybody was aware of that bottle here in the States. They probably only produced a handful, and from what I was told, it was only given to the executives, employees, and people who attended the grand opening of the bottling plant. So that’s one of my favorites.
There are a few others, too. Back in 1993, The California State Tourism Board did a partnership with Coca-Cola to try to get Japanese tourists to come to California. They ran this promotion called California Dream. If you bought Coke products, you could enter the sweepstakes to win a number of trips on United Airlines from Tokyo to California with different destinations, including Napa, San Francisco, SeaWorld, Monterey, and Hollywood.
They put out special cans and I was able to get quite a few. They were not made for consumption. They don’t have Coke inside, so they call them air filled cans. They had very beautiful graphics of the different destinations in California and they were produced in Japan. Living here in California and being able to get something like that was neat, so these are in my display box. The air-filled cans usually are released to commemorate certain events. The cans I got were sent to travel agencies and tourism offices, so that’s why they didn’t have Coke in them. They’re actually quite rare. They did more of this overseas than here in the States.
Another can that I really like is the New Coke from 1985. They changed the formula in 1985 and created a huge uproar, so they had to bring back the old formula, which they renamed Coke Classic. The bottling plant in New York City was one of the first plants to bottle New Coke with the new formula. I have a can that has Coke in it, but it doesn’t have a pull cap on top. They canned these for the guests and bottling plant employees to commemorate the inaugural production of New Coke in April 1985. New Coke was around for a couple of years, and then redone and renamed Coke II, and eventually discontinued.
In the early ‘80s, they did a lot of taste tests, Coke versus Pepsi and all that. Pepsi stated that more people preferred Pepsi over Coke, so the Coca-Cola Company thought, “it must be that Pepsi is sweeter.” The New Coke formula actually had a sweeter taste than the original Coke. But people didn’t realize they were going to take away the old Coke, and got really upset, so they actually kept both Cokes on the shelves for a couple years, Coke Classic and the New Coke. What we have today is supposedly the original Coke, but they call it Coke Classic. This only happened in North America. Everywhere else, they still have the original Coke. If you look at a Coca-Cola bottle or can in Europe or Asia, you won’t see Coca-Cola Classic; you would just see Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola also did some bottles with different organizations – universities and colleges as well as Ronald McDonald House. They came up with a special bottle for them to give out at a charity or fundraising event. I got one that was for a local fundraiser at the Stanford Law School. Something like that was never sold, only given to guests or people who attended the event, so to me they’re more collectible.
Collectors Weekly: You’re also interested in the Coca-Cola envelopes, right?
Liao: Before I started collecting Coca-Cola, I collected stamps. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to try to get an envelope from each of the Coca-Cola bottling plants?” It’s a combination of my stamp collecting hobby and Coca-Cola. Every bottling plant had their own stationery to mail checks, correspond with their suppliers, etc. Not very many people collect that, but I was able to find a couple collectors to trade with, and now people know that I collect them and will usually send me an e-mail if they get something.
When you’ve been collecting for this long, you learn about the history. All the bottling plants have been consolidated; there are fewer and fewer now. In the San Francisco Bay Area, we used to have over a dozen different bottling plants, but there’s no Coca-Cola bottler here in the Bay Area at all now, and only two distribution centers. The envelopes with the address on it give you a clue that a particular bottling plant had existed there before, and you can use the postmark to see when it was used. They’re hard to find. I look at Coca-Cola shows or stamp shows, and of course eBay is by far the easiest way. Every week I look on eBay.
As far as stamps go, there have been a couple of Coca Cola stamps produced, but not in the U.S. Coca-Cola is a trademark, so foreign postal agencies actually licensed the trademark, to make stamps for collectors. There are stamps that people collect called tax revenue stamps. In the early days, with a lot of the merchandise, you needed to have the tax revenue stamps affixed. Some people collect these, but they’re also very hard to find.
Some people collect not just the envelope, but the letter that was mailed. Some people collect the checks that the company produced, stock certificates, brochures, things like that. Most people start off collecting everything, and eventually they’ll specialize in one area or another.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the rarest Coca-Cola items you collect?
Liao: I’ve been focused primarily on bottles and cans. There are some rare test market bottles or cans, where the Coca-Cola Company or the bottlers tried to experiment with new packaging. Those are a lot harder to find; they weren’t even given away or used in a fundraising event. Usually some employees kept them. I’ve not seen any prototype cans myself, but I’ve read about them in the club newsletters.
Then there are the space cans that went up with the space shuttle Challenger in the 1980s. Those are probably the most highly sought after and expensive cans you can find. They were designed so they could be used in the shuttle. They made a few of these as prototypes, and they were actually sent up in space. They also produced some reproductions that were given to certain individuals, and even the reproductions that are authorized by the company are very hard to find. I saw one on eBay that went for over a thousand dollars. In the world of soda bottles and cans, anything in the thousand-dollar range is pretty expensive.
Collectors Weekly: Do most Coca-Cola bottle collectors also collect cans?
Liao: In the U.S., most people collect Coca-Cola bottles and not as many collect cans, but if you go to Europe or Asia, most people collect cans and not bottles. That has to do with the variety of bottles available. In Europe and Asia, it’s hard to find commemorative bottles. There are a lot more cans. In fact, there’s more variety of commemorative cans than here in the U.S. In recent years, because of eBay and the Internet, people will trade back and forth, so some people collect both, but normally you’ll find people specializing in one or the other.
In the world of Coca-Cola collecting, bottles are just a small part. There are people who actually collect Coca-Cola trays, calendars, pretty much anything that the Coca-Cola Company put out in terms of advertising. Those types of items are harder to come by and there are not as many new items.
The commemorative bottles I’ve mentioned are fairly recent. There are also collectors who specialize in the old, antique Coke bottles and will only collect what they call the straight-sided bottles. The Coke bottles we see today in stores are the contour shape. The earlier bottles are straight-sided, tall bottles, and some of them come in different colored glass: the amber color, the aqua color, and the clear glass. The contour bottles we see today have what they call a Georgia green color, and that’s the standard throughout. And there’s another type called a Hutchison bottle, which is different from these contour-shape bottles that we have, and there are collectors who specialize in just those.
Some collectors also look for glasses. Coke was first served as a fountain drink, so there are different shaped Coca-Cola glasses. There’s the flare type of glass and the bell-shaped glass, in small and larger sizes. These are things that the vintage collectors tend to focus on more.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of the different ways Coca-Cola was advertised?
Liao: The Coca-Cola Company was actually quite a pioneer in advertising. Coca-Cola was the first company to use coupons; they came up with the concept as a way for people to sample the product in the early 1890s. They also had large signs put up on display, either painted signs or porcelain signs, and they put up posters on streetcars. People collect these as well, and of course they’re very hard to come by. People take photos of old painted wall signs or these large porcelain signs. Some are rectangular, some are the round disc, and some are called fish-tail signs.
For the 1984 Olympics in L.A., Coca-Cola had signs in different languages that they put at the bus stop benches. After the Olympics, they took down the signs and people bought them as souvenirs. For the World Cup games, they had these large signs that had a Coca-Cola logo that showed the World Cup games played at Stanford. There were four different ones and they hung them on the light posts on El Camino Real. They went to the city and they were sold to raise money for the youth sports program.
The calendars and trays are also big in terms of advertising. The calendars were given to anybody who asked for them. Posters, stationery, you name it – there’s a wide variety of things Coca-Cola has produced to advertise.
Collectors Weekly: When did Coca-Cola start using Santa Claus in their advertising?
Liao: Coca-Cola commissioned an artist by the name of Haddon Sundblom to produce the images that would be used during Christmastime. I believe this was done back in 1931. Sundblom actually produced 30-some different paintings for Coca-Cola: ones with little puppies, some with kids, some by the refrigerator, and some with Christmas trees. The more recent ones are all pretty much based on those early images.
Collectors Weekly: Did Coca-Cola becoming more corporate affect collecting?
Liao: Yes and no. The Coca-Cola Company itself produces the syrup and does all the marketing. The bottling plants buy the syrup, add water and sugar, bottle it, and put it on the shelves. The bottling plants do local advertising as well to try to increase local sales. At one point, Coca-Cola had over a thousand bottling plants around the country, and all these bottling plants were independent. They weren’t owned by the Coca-Cola Company.
“Made by Coca-Cola, Georgia Coffee is the most popular coffee drink in Japan.”
Twenty years ago, the company decided that they’d be more efficient if they actually built larger bottling operations. Coca-Cola still doesn’t own them, but they own 50 percent of the bottling plant. Right now Coca-Cola Enterprises is the largest bottling company in the world. It’s a separate company from Coca-Cola Company, but it is owned in part by the company itself. Coca-Cola Enterprises bought out all the small independent bottling companies.
Sacramento has an independent bottling company that’s not affiliated with the big guys – the Sacramento Coca-Cola Bottling Company. They’re family-owned since the 1920s, I believe. They produced some special bottles and cans just for local events and things like that. As most of these independent bottlers are bought out by the big corporations like Coca-Cola Enterprises, they don’t cater as much to the locals, so we’re seeing fewer of these local commemorative bottles and cans.
Collectors Weekly: Since the bottling companies are independently owned, is that why they didn’t change the formula in other countries?
Liao: Yes. When they introduced a new product, they would usually try it out in one market first. They wouldn’t do this worldwide. Fanta, for instance, was actually first produced by Coca-Cola in Germany in the 1940s. They introduced it in the U.S. in the 1960s. You’ll find certain products, not just Coca-Cola but other brands that Coca-Cola put out, that are available in different countries. Coca-Cola tried something called Coca-Cola Black, a coffee Coke. It was only out for a year here because people didn’t like it much, but it’s still available in France. In Japan, they have a coffee drink made by Coca-Cola called Georgia Coffee, and it’s the most popular coffee drink in Japan. The bottlers in different countries have some autonomy to produce beverages the locals prefer.
In some cases, Coca-Cola would actually buy the local beverage. In Peru, there’s a popular beverage called Inca-Cola that’s a clear-color cola drink. Coca-Cola bought them out, so now Inca-Cola is part of the Coca-Cola brand. In fact, you can buy Inca-Cola here in the U.S. because they actually bottle it here in the U.S., but depending on the country or the region, the local taste may be different.
Recently, they’ve introduced more flavors. We first had Cherry Coke in the 1980s, and now there’s Coke with lime, Coke with lemon, and the different Diet Coke drinks. Overseas, they came out with Coca-Cola Citrus, which is a lemon-lime-flavored Coke, and Coca-Cola Raspberry.
Some people collect those as well. Some will collect only Coca-Cola and nothing else. Some people go beyond Coca-Cola and collect Sprite or Fanta. Coca-Cola puts out over 400 different brands and varieties, and you can’t actually try to collect all 400. Each product would have different packages, from the small 8-ounce bottle to the large 2-liter. There’s the glass bottle, the plastic bottle, and different sizes of cans.
There are super collectors I know in the United States and Europe who do have bottles and cans in the tens of thousands, which is amazing. They basically build a museum around themselves. They have a big storage unit, or their whole basement or barn is filled with Coke. I’m amazed at the time and effort for someone to put together a collection like that. I’m not aware of any large collection here in the Bay Area. I know there are collectors here, but as far as bottle and can collectors go, the big collections are in Europe, the Midwest, and the South.
I don’t really have a sense of the number of European collectors. Nobody has really done a study on that. There is a Coca-Cola Collectors Club that’s been around since 1975. It’s not affiliated with the company. Currently, there are about 3,000 to 4,000 members. A great majority of them are here in the U.S., but not every Coca-Cola collector is with this club, and because this is a U.S. club, there are probably more American members. There are local clubs in Europe and Asia, which probably have hundreds of members as well.
In the U.S., which is where Coca-Cola originated, you can find a lot of things at flea markets, antique stores, and swap meets, but in Europe and Asia, they’re harder to find because Coca-Cola hasn’t been out there for as long. People tend to collect whatever they can get their hands on.
Collectors Weekly: When was the first Coca-Cola bottle distributed?
Liao: Coca-Cola was first invented in 1886 as a fountain drink. You were supposed to go into a pharmacy or a soda fountain and ask for a Coke, and it was always served in a glass. Somebody Mississippi started bottling in the 1890s on his own without approval from the Coca-Cola Company because he wanted his customers to be able to bring it home to enjoy. But officially, the first Coca-Cola bottler was actually started in 1899. The contour bottle we have today didn’t come about until 1915, because the bottlers just used whatever bottles they had available at the time. The Coca-Cola Company decided to standardize the bottle because there were a lot of imitation drinks and they wanted to make sure that they had a unique bottle design.
Coca-Cola was introduced globally in phases. I think they started first in Canada and Cuba and then Panama, and later on they introduced it in Europe. Today it’s available in pretty much every country you go, even if they don’t bottle in that country.
Collectors Weekly: Is the Coca-Cola Company involved in the collecting community?
Liao: The company didn’t pay much attention to collectors until the club started in 1975. They don’t sponsor the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, but they have special events at the World of Coke in Atlanta every year and they invite collectors to look at some of the new items. Phil Mooney, the chief archivist for the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, got involved as a liaison person between the Coca-Cola Company and the club. He would actually attend the conventions as a keynote speaker and go on road shows to talk to collectors.
Every collector must go to the World of Coke once in their life. It’s like the Mecca for Coca-Cola collectors. The first one was in 1990, and in 2007 they built on a new site. It’s a much bigger collection with a lot of interactive exhibits, so it’s definitely a must-see, even for non-collectors.
At one point, New York City had a Coca-Cola Fifth Avenue, which was a retail store, but it’s closed now. The only other company store or museum is actually the World of Coke in Las Vegas, but it’s only a retail store. They used to have a museum upstairs, but they closed it.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a certain era that produced the most collectible Coca-Cola memorabilia?
Liao: It really depends on what you collect. With commemorative bottles, you’re not going to see a lot of variety before 1950. Allan Petretti, the author of what we call the Coca-Cola bible for collectors, has produced a price guide for many years now. Most items in his book, the Collectible Price Guide, are items before the 1960s, because most collectors are looking at items before that. Anything after that tends to be more retail-oriented, whereas the so-called vintage items are all pre-1960s. Anything from the 1890s is very hard to come by.
Most people prefer to collect the early items, not the reproductions or the mass market items from the 1970s on. In the 1970s, companies saw that there were a lot of collectors looking for early Cola-Cola items, so they licensed and copied the images for reproductions, but collectors didn’t want them. There are a lot of these reproduction items out there that just really add to the confusion, and a lot of people sell them on eBay assume they are vintage. Allan Petretti’s book has extensive articles on how to identify the original versus a reproduction.
Collectors Weekly: When did they start making commemorative and limited-edition bottles?
Liao: They had them from the ‘30s and ‘40s on, but it was not until the 1980s they really started coming out with commemorative bottles and cans. The companies have always produced commemorative items for special events within the company or bottler – for instance, for employees to commemorate a new officer or a senior employee who’s worked with the company for 20 or 30 years. These were never meant to go outside the company.
Sporting events in general have had a big influence on Coca-Cola and collecting. People watch football, and baseball, and they buy refreshments. Coca-Cola has been a sponsor for a lot of sports in the major leagues and at the college and high school levels, so they have programs that produce advertising materials. Coca-Cola has been a sponsor for the Olympics for 80 years, since 1928.
Another thing they do a lot is entertainment – music, radio, and movies. Coca-Cola advertised on radio and television shows very early on, and sometimes they did promotions with movies. They did a commemorative bottle with Harry Potter for one of the movies. Last year, in the U.K., they had a special Sex and the City promotion for the movie, and this year they’re coming out with a special bottle and renaming Coke Zero Coke 007.
Collectors Weekly: Why is Coca-Cola so popular among collectors?
Liao: It’s so intertwined with history and culture. Throughout the generations, Coca-Cola has always been a family event. People remember the Coca-Cola jingles and the ads, so that’s one reason people collect. A lot of these advertising items were beautifully produced as well, so people enjoy them.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the best books about Coca-Cola collecting?
Liao: Allan Petretti’s is the most popular one. It’s pretty comprehensive for all the vintage items before 1960s. For people who collect just bottles, there are three different books on bottles out there, but the last one was published in 2000, so it’s pretty dated. People put out a few books off and on, but none of them are as comprehensive as Allan Petretti’s book. He started in 1980, and he’s been in this business for over 30 years.
(All images in this article courtesy Bobby Liao of Bobby’s Coca-Cola on the Web)