As impossible as it may seem today, Coca-Cola did not originally intend to sell its products in bottles. In fact, Asa Candler, president of Coca-Cola in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, assumed his drink would only be popular in spring and summer, and his business with soda fountains was lucrative enough that a bottling venture did not appeal to him.
In fact, the first man to bottle Coca-Cola did so without the permission of the company—in 1894, Joseph Biedenharn began to bottle Coke so customers could take the carbonated drink to picnics and other spots outside of the soda fountain. His idea spread, and by the beginning of the 20th century, two lawyers named Benjamin Thomas and Joseph Whitehead had obtained exclusive bottling rights from Candler.
Aside from the syrup bottles used to store Coca-Cola syrup at soda fountains (which themselves have become collectibles), the first bottles used to transport Coca-Cola were Hutchinson-stopper bottles. Even though they were only about six inches tall, Hutchinson bottles were quite heavy and clunky.
Unlike later, more familiar Coca-Cola bottles, Hutchinson bottles had straight sides without curves. Each was embossed with “Coca-Cola”—either in block text or in script—and the name of the city where it was bottled. Although very few of these bottles have survived, the Hutchinson stoppers left an important legacy: to open the bottle, one had to push the stopper down through the neck. When it opened, it popped—which is how the term “soda pop” entered the American vernacular.
Hutchinson bottles quickly went out of circulation with the introduction of the crown-top or crown-cork bottle, which had essentially the same shape as modern beer bottles. These bottles used bottle caps like those we know today, rather than rubber stoppers, to keep the drink inside fresh. Like the Hutchinson bottles, the crown-top bottles had straight sides, but they were lighter and easier for people to handle.
Though William Painter of Baltimore invented the crown-top bottle in 1891, it did not become popular until about a decade later, when sanitation laws began outlawing other types of beverage seals. Coca-Cola adopted crown tops relatively early, around 1902, impressed by its ability to keep the product fresh and unspoiled for longer periods of time than Hutchinson bottles.
The variety of different types of bottles from this period is almost endless, encompassing numerous shapes, sizes, and colors. Each Coca-Cola bottler was independently empowered ...
Most bottlers stuck to one of these two hues, but some bottlers went with light green, a widely used and less expensive color. Because bottles were still hand-blown into molds until about 1910, irregularities were common. In addition to the embossed “Coca-Cola” on the bottles themselves, bottlers also glued a diamond-shaped paper label to the side of each bottle to further identify its contents.
A new era for Coca-Cola began on November 16, 1915 when Coca-Cola patented a brand-new bottle shape. Inspired by the shape of a cocoa pod, this bottle featured a bulging middle, parallel grooves, and tapered ends—a shape that remains iconic to this day. Gone was the dispute between dark and light colors of glass; all of these new bottles had the same color: German green, later renamed Georgia green.
Known as the “Mae West” or “hobbleskirt” bottle for its resemblance to a fashionable dress of the period, the new bottle was the result of a two-year search and contest initiated in 1912 by Benjamin Thomas to create something unique and instantly recognizable for the Coca-Cola brand. The shape, designed by the Root Glass Company, became standard across all Coca-Cola bottlers.
The hobbleskirt bottle remained relatively unchanged for decades, aside from slight modifications in the embossments, some of which have become quite famous. For example, because Coca-Cola renewed its patent for the hobbleskirt shape on December 25, 1923, many bottles were embossed with this new patent date; as a result, these became known as “Christmas Coke” bottles, a romantic name that has spawned fictional tales of origin to explain the date.
Decades later, in the late 1950s, Coca-Cola decided to stop embossing the cities of origin on its bottles. This met with surprisingly heavy resistance from Coke drinkers, who often created games involving these cities. The next major change to Coke bottles came in 1957, when Coca-Cola adopted the Applied Color Labeling (ACL) process, which relied on paste-based imprinting rather than traditional embossing methods or paper labels.
Until the mid-1960s, customers bought bottles of soda and then returned them to the bottlers for re-use. In 1967, Coke began marketing “no-deposit” bottles—bottles which were not meant to be returned—and, for awhile, reverted to straight-side bottles with paper labels. A few years later, the hobbleskirt shape became available as no-deposit bottles; eventually, plastic became the material of choice, along with cans.
Dating Coca-Cola bottles made after 1916 is relatively straightforward, thanks to the manufacturer’s numbers on the base or bottom of the bottle. These four-digit numbers, which are separated into pairs by a dash, identify the bottle mold (the first two numbers) and the year of its manufacture (“30,” for example, would indicate 1930). Newer bottles also have four-digit numbers, but they provide even more information. In these bottles, the first digit represents the year, the second indicates the mold, the third is the manufacturer’s symbol, and the fourth identifies the plant where the glass bottle was blown.
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