Ray Kilinski talks about collecting vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia. He discusses the differences between old and new Coca-Cola items, favorite pieces from his collection, and the hobby in general—from the way people specialize to events held by clubs.
I started collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia back in the early 1970s. I was working the night shift at a company, and as I walked home one morning I took a shortcut through the woods and came across an old abandoned barn. I went inside and saw a stack of old Coca-Cola serving trays from the 1950s on one of the shelves. The ones on the bottom and top were all rusted, but all of the trays in between were in mint shape.
Of course, I didn’t know if they were worth anything, but I brought them to an antiques shop and I found out there was a variety of Coca-Cola serving trays. I just started collecting different trays. Before I knew it, I started telling people that I had all these old Coke things in my house, and they started saying, “Well, I’ve got this old Coke sign hanging in my garage. You want it?” So it just snowballed from there.
I only collect vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia, and when I say vintage I mean anything that’s pre-1960. There are a lot of collectors who collect new items, and there’s a lot of new items out there made for the collectibles market. You can buy a lot of things at Wal-Mart, like Cola-Cola tins or plastic cups. I don’t collect any of that.
I always tell people, “if you enjoy collecting it, that’s fine, but don’t think of it as an investment.” They make millions of copies of those things, so it’ll never appreciate in value.
It’s getting harder to collect the older material. A lot of the pieces in antiques shops are overpriced, even the ones that are in bad shape. People think, “I’ve got a Coke item, so it’s worth a lot of money.” It’s not. Coca-Cola items have become known as being highly collectible, so a lot of the pieces in antiques shops are overpriced.
I do look on eBay a lot because at any given time there are more than 20,000 Coca-Cola items for sale. But on eBay, you’re buying without actually touching the item or looking at it in person, and there are a lot of items that are questionable. For example, you’re able to buy Coca-Cola decals nowadays, just the Coca-Cola logo, and a lot of people do that and attach it to an old gumball machine and then advertise it as an old Coca-Cola gumball machine. Coca-Cola never made a gumball machine. You have to do your research.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of collectors of vintage Coca-Cola?
Kilinski: I’m a member of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club. It’s an international organization. We currently have about 3,000 members worldwide. Probably half to three-quarters of those members are vintage collectors. Of course, a lot of vintage collectors are not members of the club. I’ve met a lot of people who collect vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia, but they’re not part of any organized club.
The Coca-Cola collectibles shows are the same for new and vintage Coca-Cola collectors, but a lot of the vintage people like me don’t really like associating with the new collectors.
Collectors Weekly: Did the Coca-Cola Company ever think that these items would become collectible?
Kilinski: No. I met one guy who worked for Coca-Cola back in the 1940s, and his job was to take all the surplus stuff to the dump. I cringed when I heard his stories about how they would open up boxes of old serving trays and throw them out into the woods like Frisbees. Now these items are worth $400 or $500 apiece. So no, back then they had no idea that people were going to be collecting any of these things.
Collectors Weekly: What types of items do you have?
Kilinski: I have a room dedicated to Coke. I’ve got more than a thousand items. Not everything is huge. I’m starting to collect paper items, like Coca-Cola paper cups. I have probably 30 different Coca-Cola paper cups starting from the 1940s. They were drinking cups, serving cups, specifically made for Coca-Cola.
I also have a Coca-Cola Vendo 44, which is a vending machine that was made in the 1950s. It’s called the Vendo 44 because it only holds 44 bottles. I think every serious Coca-Cola collector wants one in their collection. Mine is all in original shape and it still works, too. It used to vend the old 8-ounce Coca-Cola bottles.
Coca-Cola produced a lot of in-house publications. One was called The Red Barrel, and it was a magazine given to Coca-Cola employees. That was published from the 1920s until the 1950s. I collect those, too. There are other publications and newsletters, and Coca-Cola produced a lot of advertising manuals showing the different advertising materials for each year. Those are highly collectible.
A lot of Coca-Cola bottling plants produced their own tour guides, and those are interesting to collect. They had Coca-Cola matchbooks, even Coca-Cola ink blotters. Coca-Cola was the number-one producer of these sorts of advertising materials way back in the early days. They put their name on just about anything you can imagine. They produced a different calendar every year, starting from 1898, and hundreds of different tin signs in all shapes and sizes.
Nowadays, cost is a factor in what I collect. I can’t afford everything. I’d love to have one of those old Coca-Cola toy trucks from the 1930s that are going for $1,500 apiece right now, but I just can’t afford it. I collect anything that I can afford that is pre-1960. I’m not really looking for anything in particular, whatever catches my eye, although I like a lot of the Coca-Cola cardboard displays because they’re very colorful.
Some of the cardboard displays are still in good condition. Every once in a while you’ll see someone on eBay who says he found a stack of them in a warehouse and they were never even used, but most of the time the corners are bent or they have water damage. But a lot of the tin signs sold today are still in good shape.
I’m probably one of the rare collectors who doesn’t really care about condition. Granted, it has to look good, but I don’t mind scratches or bends or any character flaws. I like things that were actually used for their intended purpose. I don’t like to buy items that were found in a warehouse but never actually used. Collectors refer to it as NOS, new old stock. It’s old, but it was never even used. It was found in a warehouse or something. So I don’t mind stuff that’s a bit beat up. I think it adds to the character. Every item that I have has a history to it. I’ve got a tin sign hanging up in my room that’s from the 1940s, and I wonder where it originally hung and who leaned against it.
Collectors Weekly: How has Coca-Cola advertising changed since then?
Kilinski: It was a lot more ornate back then. They made things out of tin and porcelain and ceramic. For example, they used to serve Coca-Cola in soda fountains. You’d pour the syrup in a ceramic urn, and then add crushed ice and carbonated water. Today the urns are highly collectible because back then, Coca-Cola put a lot of attention into the details—the logo on the urn was embossed. Nowadays everything is paper or plastic, disposable. But back then it was made to last, and that’s why it’s still around.
Collectors Weekly: Coca-Cola seems to have generated a special kind of relationship between its customers and its brand. How did that happen?
Kilinski: I don’t know. I compare Coca-Cola collectors to Harley-Davidson riders. Not only do they ride the Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but they wear the Harley-Davidson jackets and the T-shirts and some of them have Harley-Davidson tattoos. So that’s kind of the same thing.
I just like Coca-Cola memorabilia because of how it looks. It’s mostly red, a primary color, so it stands out. They made thousands and thousands of different types of items with the Coca-Cola logo in it—clocks and thermometers and calendars and signs and coolers. It’s a part of our heritage. We grew up with it. My parents used to have a Coca-Cola picnic cooler. So it’s like we collect it because we grew up with it.
Collectors Weekly: Is collecting Coca-Cola an American thing?
Kilinski: No. It’s international. Like I said, I’m a member of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, and every year we have a national convention in a different city. Last year  it was in Denver, and next year  it’s going to be in Milwaukee. It’s a weeklong convention, and they have seminars and a silent auction and a live auction and a swap meet. There are usually about 700 members there, a lot of them from Japan or Germany or Switzerland. So it’s worldwide; people all over the world collect Coca-Cola.
A lot of collectors are specialized. I’ve noticed there are a lot of collectors overseas who focus exclusively on collecting Coca-Cola bottles because Coca-Cola made millions of bottles and they made some in different languages, too. You see the Coca-Cola logo, but it’s spelled in a different language. They also made different types of Coca-Cola cans, so there are a lot of can collectors out there.
You don’t have to specialize; there are just some collectors who like to. For instance, there’s a guy here in Orlando who just collects Coca-Cola calendars. Some of those early calendars can go for up to $15,000 apiece. I think he’s got every one ever produced, and they’re all in mint shape. He’s got them framed in museum-quality glass and matted and everything.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the more obscure items that you’ve come across while collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia?
Kilinski: There are rare items, like a ceramic Coca-Cola urn. Those come in three pieces: the base, the main part in ceramic, and the lid. It’s rare to find the entire thing intact. A lot of times you only find the base and not the lid. They’re probably worth $8,000 apiece complete if you can find one. I don’t have one.
There are rare calendars and rare tin signs, too. When Coca-Cola first came out, they were sold in straight-sided bottles. You didn’t see these contoured bottles that they have nowadays. One of the old tin signs back then had a picture of a straight-sided bottle on it. So those are rare. Some of those old tin signs are worth about $3,000 to $4,000.
It’s amazing. It wasn’t always that way. My mom collected antiques when I was growing up, and she always subscribed to antiques magazines. I found an issue from 1970, and they had an article about a guy who collected Coca-Cola calendars. Back in the early 1970s, it wasn’t that popular, and they had prices on these calendars for $400 to $600 apiece. Now, like I said, they’re going for about $15,000 apiece. I wish I had started collecting back in the early ’70s! Of course, everybody says that they wish they kept their comic books, baseball cards, or Barbie dolls because they’d be worth money now.
Collectors Weekly: When did Coca-Cola collecting become popular?
Kilinski: The Coca-Cola Collectors Club was organized in 1974, I believe, and that’s when I think it started to snowball, because they had just started publishing price guides about it. You could go into a bookstore and actually buy a book that talked about all these Coca-Cola items for sale. It started to really become popular in the late 1980s or ’90s.
EBay gave everybody an opportunity to find this stuff without really looking for it, and it brought everything out of the woodwork. Everyone said, “I’ve got this old Coke sign in my attic. I don’t have to bring it to an antiques shop. I’ll just put it on eBay.” So eBay helped the Coca-Cola collectors, but it also hurt them because people started bidding on things and the prices skyrocketed.
You started seeing things on eBay that you wouldn’t normally find in antiques shops. There were salesman uniforms. People who worked for Coca-Cola or the bottling plants started bringing out their old uniforms and other employee-related items that you normally couldn’t find.
Coca-Cola put its name on just about everything. In the early 1940s, there are wooden ice picks with logos on them, and ice tongs. Cigarette lighters back in the 1930s and ’40s had the Coca-Cola logo on them. Now you wouldn’t see a cigarette lighter with the Coca-Cola logo on it because they don’t want to promote anything that’s bad for your health.
Collectors Weekly: How has collecting vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia changed since you started?
Kilinski: I just got a new publication by Allan Petretti. His books are the bibles of Coca-Cola collectibles. He started to print Coca-Cola price guides back in the ’80s—about every five or six years he comes out with a new edition. He bases his prices on the economy. Since the recession, a lot of his prices have gone down. Six years ago, his book said you could expect to pay $600 for a 1940s Coca-Cola serving tray, but now he has it for $350. So a lot of things have been reduced in value recently.
Collectors Weekly: As you’ve collected, have you sold some items to be able to add new ones?
Kilinski: Yes. I’m out of work right now. I worked as a senior art director for an advertising agency, but I lost my job in April. I work out of my house now as a freelance artist, but I’m still having a little trouble paying my bills, so I sell some of my Coke items every once in a while. But I also sold things when I was working. I’ve got a lot of duplicate items. Even if I already have an item, if I see another in an antiques shop at a good price, I’ll buy it. A lot of times I might see the same item but it’s in better shape, so I’ll buy that item and then sell my other one. So I’m constantly buying and selling. I look back at things I sold years ago and sometimes I wish I hadn’t, but a lot of times I sell because I need the money.
Collectors Weekly: You sent us pictures of your backyard. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did there?
Kilinski: I had a huge backyard, and I never really utilized it, so I just decided to hire a builder. I designed the whole thing. I had a deck built, and a hot tub and a Coca-Cola bar, and I found this old Coca-Cola cooler on craigslist for like $150. It was all beat up because it was from the 1940s, but it was six feet long.
So I had my builder build a Coke bar around that, and he raised it up and made it into a counter with bar stools. He built the bar out of cypress wood and added a tin corrugated roof to it, and then I just added my old rusted Coke signs that had been outside anyway. We’ve had company parties out there with up to 60 people. It’s just a fun party atmosphere because there’s built-in bench seating and the bar has a mini fridge and cable TV. It’s like a little party central.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think vintage Coca-Cola collecting is growing?
Kilinski: I actually think it’s dwindling. When I first joined the Coca-Cola Club back in 1996, we had 8,000 members worldwide. Now we have less than 3,000. We need to get new members excited about it. I’ve got two sons in their mid-20s, but they have no interest in it at all. They don’t collect anything. They used to collect baseball cards but not anymore. I don’t think there are a lot of young collectors in any field right now, and I think that’s going to hurt a lot of people. It’s going to hurt not only Coca-Cola collectors but all types of collecting organizations. So that’s our struggle, how to go after the young collector and get him excited about this.
Our Coca-Cola Collectors Club is trying to do an aggressive membership drive right now, and we’re trying to get younger people to join because most of our members are in their 50s and 60s. We’re not going to be around that long. We have to target the younger audience and make it interesting for them. Right now our national conventions are pretty much geared towards the older crowd, so I suggested inviting younger members and having a social hour or a happy hour for them.
A lot of people think they can’t afford any vintage things, but they really can. You can still buy a lot of old stuff that isn’t going to cost you an arm and a leg. You can still buy some calendars from the 1940s and ’50s for under $100, and a lot of items from the ’60s and ’70s are easy to come by and not that expensive right now. But 30 or 40 years from now, they’re going to be.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any other advice for someone who is just starting a Coca-Cola collection?
Kilinski: I would say that if you can afford it, buy old items and buy them in the best shape that you can. Don’t buy an item that is old but is all beat up because you’re not going to get any investment value out of it. I met a guy who started collecting old Coca-Cola cardboard signs, and his father always used to tell him to buy the very best that he could. Don’t settle for old, beat-up items, because they’ll never retain their value. But for the younger collector, like I said earlier, if you’re going to collect the newer items that you can find in Wal-Mart or Kmart or Target, just buy them because you enjoy them. Don’t expect to buy for an investment.
(All images in this article courtesy Ray Kilinski)