In the early part of the 20th century, most corner grocery stores kept their inventories of bottled Coca-Cola cold by icing them in coolers. It was an age of serve-yourself, where all it took to ensure that a customer brought his bottle of Coke to the store’s clerk for purchase was to put a sign on the side of a cooler with the word “please.”
The culture, however, was becoming increasing mechanical, which accounts for the introduction in 1910 of a coin-operated vending cooler designed expressly for Coca-Cola bottles. Georgia bottler George Cobb had the right idea when he introduced his Vend-all cooler, but it held only 12 bottles, making it impractical for retailers.
By the 1920s, numerous companies were making point-of-purchase coolers for Coca-Cola products. In the mid-1920s, Icy-O made one of the first Coca-Cola machines, whose tub-like design resembled a washing machine and featured a crank at the top that customers could turn to make their selection. Payment, however, was still on the honor system.
In 1928, Coca-Cola hired sheet-metal manufacturer Glascock Bros. to design and build a cooler that it could sell to retailers. Electric coolers followed in 1930 and in 1931 Glascock produced a coin-operated vending machine for Coke. While the benefits of these machines was clear, they were slow to catch on with retailers, in no small part because coin-op technology had not advanced far enough yet to prevent customers from “paying” for their bottles with a worthless slug.
During the 1930s, Westinghouse’s coin-operated Vendo Top coolers gave customers access to an ice-cold bottle of Coke for a nickel, but the biggest name in Coca-Cola machines came along in 1937, when Vendo of Kansas City, Missouri, was founded.
At first, Vendo filled a niche by making coin-op tops for traditional coolers produced by competitors like Westinghouse and Cavalier, but eventually Vendo would manufacture the entire machine. For example, its widely produced V-39, built between 1949 and 1957, is one of the most collected machines, thanks to its handsome, rounded top. Early all-red models featured the words “Ice Cold” embossed at the bottom of the machine; two-tone models made after 1955 had white tops.
By the 1950s, Vendo was arguably the king of Coca-Cola vending machines—the Coke-supplied graphics on its Style Star machines of the late 1960s and early ’70s are familiar to anyone who visited a bowling alley or other public place with vending machines during that time. Indeed, Vendo was so successful that in 1979 it was able to buy out a competitor named Vendolater...
Other companies also prospered making vending machines for Coca-Cola, including Cavalier, whose small machines are especially popular with collectors. The C-27 from the late ’40s is a favorite thanks to its “ship’s wheel” handle, which was only produced for a limited amount of time. The wheel was replaced by an equally short-lived star-shaped handle, which itself gave way to a more standard lever or crank.
Another popular Cavalier machine was the C-102, which vended from two sides. Widely used throughout the 1950s, these machines had the unintended consequence of being tools of segregation—some machines were labeled “Whites Only” on one side and “Colored Only” on the other.
Finally, bottles were not the only way in which vending machines delivered Coca-Cola to thirsty customers. In the 1950s and ’60s, pre-mix machines dispensed a paper cup of soda, sometimes over crushed ice. Glasco is one of many manufacturers that produced these pre-mix machines, many of which also featured Coke’s classic Style Star graphics.