Few brands have been as effectively and aggressively marketed as Coca-Cola, which was invented in 1886 by John S. Pemberton. Almost from day one, advertising materials, including signs, were produced to trumpet the virtues of the sweet, carbonated beverage. In fact, in his first year of business, Pemberton spent more money on advertising than he took in, producing, among other items, 14 outdoor signs painted on oilcloth and another 45 painted on tin. Today, thanks in part to his early obsession with advertising, Coca-Cola is one of the best-known brand names in the world.
The first metal Coca-Cola signs were lithographed or painted. Known as tackers, these signs were designed to be nailed directly through the metal and onto a wooden wall or fence. Even at this early moment in the company’s history, Coca-Cola understood the power of the celebrity endorsement—by the end of the 19th century, the popular opera singer Hilda Clark was pitching the beverage on rectangular and oval signs, made out of everything from paper to metal.
By 1910 the short-lived era of large outdoor oilcloth signs had come to an end. Because these signs wore out quickly (they were no match for the elements), they were systematically replaced by more durable, and expensive, metal ones. Some of these large outdoor signs were similar to the tackers, but others were made of fired enamels that were baked until they created a porcelain surface on a base of iron or steel. Eyelets at the corners and sides were built into the design, since nailing through porcelain would destroy the sign.
The first of these porcelain signs were roughly eight-by-eight feet and got right to the point: “Ice Cold Coca-Cola Sold Here,” they proclaimed. The Coke bottle depicted on the sign was straight sided—the company’s trademark curved bottle, which resembled the contours of a hobble skirt and was nicknamed “Mae West,” was not widely used until 1920.
Some tin signs were embossed, giving the brand’s famous logo relief, while others were made of aluminum and coated in celluloid, which was less durable than porcelain but worked fine in interiors such as soda fountains and bars.
An especially popular sign from 1914 featured a model named “Betty.” This marked a shift for the company away from high-brow celebrity toward something approaching sex appeal, although the young lady’s attire and flirtatious gaze is certainly tame by 21st-century standards. Other signs on cardboard from this period admonished customers to ask for Coca-Cola by its full name, which was an effort by the company to combat competitors trying to capitalize on the parts or even misspellings of the brand’s good name.
World War I brought severe sugar shortages, so very few signs were produced during these years, but in the 1920s the Coke advertising machine was in full swing again. One classic sign from this decade is the gas-station sign, which often had a chalk circle or triangle built into the sign so station attendants could write in that day’s gas price. Larger signs had what are known as “privilege panels” above the Coca-Cola panel itself. These gave retailers space for signage of their own, in close proximity to the Coca-Cola panel, of course...
The 1920s were also when flange signs first came to prominence. These signs featured stenciled-and-fired enamel artwork on both sides of the sign, with a small right-angle flange at one end so the sign could be attached to a building and read by customers walking in opposite directions.
Another famous vintage Coca-Cola sign shape is the so-called red button, which was made by porcelain sign manufacturer Temco of Nashville, Tennessee, among others. The red button sign shape found its way onto Coca-Cola clocks, metal trays, and calendars, as well as flange signs. Shield signs forced the logo into a triangular shape, while rectangular signs were jazzed up by placing the logo within a fishtail shape.
As with the rest of popular culture, Coca-Cola signs changed with the times. For example, the frames of Coca-Cola signs exhibit distinctively Art Deco touches through the 1930s, while the signs themselves often feature mirrored or reverse-painted black glass. In fact, despite the Depression, the 1930s were a big decade for Coca-Cola signage—in 1934 alone, for example, the company offered 28 different styles of signs to its retailers, plus four versions designed just for coolers.
The 1940s saw the arrival of a new Betty on Coca-Cola signs, but new metal signs were put on hold due to the needs of World War II. Untold numbers of porcelain signs were scrapped for the war effort, which, of course, has led to their current scarcity and popularity among collectors. After the war, porcelain signage fell out of favor for less-expensive alternatives such as aluminum and eventually plastic.
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Recent News: Coca Cola Signs
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Iconic Coca-Cola sign back on in Baton RougeWAFB.com, August 28th
The 1950's era neon Coca-Cola sign that sits a top the Richoux Building at Third and Florida Streets is glowing again after it went dark in May 2014. I'm told the sign will be put into a non profit fund of the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF...Read more
Group works to get old Coca-Cola sign back up on Florence skylinewhnt.com, August 26th
FLORENCE, Ala. (WHNT) – The downtown Florence area is full of history, but one piece of it seems to be missing: the old neon Coca-Cola sign that towered over the Tennessee River. Tommy Warren reached out to WHNT News 19 to help track the sign down ...Read more
Beyond the beverage: An inside look at the Coca-Cola internship programUSA TODAY College, August 26th
This is a Coca-Cola sign on a drink dispenser at a Wendy's restaurant in Pittsburgh, Monday, March 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar). Each summer, over the course of about ten weeks, undergraduate and graduate students from all over the world come ...Read more
Antique Coca-Cola sign in heart of downtown Baton Rouge to be relighted again ...The Advocate, August 25th
A dispute that has lasted more than a year over ownership of a massive, antique Coca-Cola sign that overlooks the heart of downtown Baton Rouge has ended, so it's only a matter of time until the last-of-its-kind sign will be illuminated again for Third...Read more
Answer Man: Has any Cardinal hit the Coca-Cola sign and won a fan a year of ...Springfield News-Leader, August 20th
Hey Answer Man: I've been going to Springfield Cardinals games since the team first came to the city in 2005. Prior to each game, it's announced that if a Cardinal hits a home run that strikes the Coca-Cola sign in left-center field a fan will be...Read more
4 speechwriting tips from Coca-Cola's executive speechwritersUSA TODAY College, August 13th
Whether for debate club or even just a class presentation, chances are you've probably had to write a speech before. But have you ever considered speechwriting as a career? Here are some tips from Steve Soltis and Luke Boggs, two Atlanta-based ...Read more
PHOTO GALLERY: Coca-Cola sign unveilingJohnson City Press (subscription), July 30th
Once faded from years of erosion, the Coca-Cola sign on Wilson Avenue has been repainted courtesy of Coca- Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based distributor that serves the Johnson City area. The now-brightly painted sign is ...Read more
Coca-Cola ghost sign gets new life in Johnson CityWJHL, July 30th
Consolidated hosted a community event in Founders Park to celebrate the newly renovated historic Coca-Cola sign in downtown Johnson City at 126 Buffalo Street in Johnson City. Senior Vice President of Coca-Cola Consolidated Lauren Steele tells us how ...Read more