The Coca-Cola Company began distributing tin serving and change trays to soda fountains in 1897. Trays produced from that date until 1968 belong to the first, or classic, period of Coca-Cola trays. Because trays made from 1970 onward were often reissues of older trays or were made from new materials, these trays belong to the modern age of Coke trays. While change trays were produced intermittently, serving trays have remained a Coke staple since their introduction.
The earliest trays often sported the slogan “Delicious and Refreshing,” but slogans changed over time, with phrases like “Drink Coca-Cola,” “Coke Refreshes You Best,” “Here’s a Coke for you,” and “Be Really Refreshed!” Some trays had no slogan at all, only the familiar Coca-Cola logo.
For the first several years, all of these trays were round, generally measuring between nine and 10 inches across. Soon, oval trays began to appear, and in 1910, the rectangular tray was introduced. The rectangular tray measuring 13 ¼ inches wide by 10 ½ inches tall soon became the standard size for Coke serving trays. Round trays disappeared after 1905.
Most of these early tin trays had brown color schemes, with green and brown borders. In the late ’20s, more and more trays featured the red color scheme now so heavily identified with the Coke brand.
Trays are perhaps most collectible for their beautiful images, which were often the same as those featured in Coke calendars, signs, and other advertising materials from the year before or after. In some sense, these images have become a chronicle of American styles in the 20th century, as the trays positioned the Coca-Cola brand as all-American.
For example, in the 1900s and 1910s, women wearing lacy Victorian clothes dominated most trays. In the 1920s, the flapper made an appearance, giving way to women in bathing suits in the 1930s. Until Coke produced a tray showing a male and female character together in 1926, all early Coke trays featured a female model, generally shown with a bottle or glass of Coke. Hilda, for example, was one common character. A tray in 1931 depicted a barefoot young boy in a pastoral setting, but women were by far the most common subjects.
Some trays depicted famous figures. Victorian-era opera star Lillian Russell graced Coke trays around the turn of the century. Later, actresses like Frances Dee also appeared. One particularly collectible tray from 1934 depicted actress Maureen O’Sullivan sitting back-to-back with Olympian swimmer Johnny Weismuller, who played Tarzan in 12 films. The two smile at one another, Coke bottles in hand...
War brides, of course, were common to trays made in the 1940s, while the 1950s saw the introduction of trays depicting scenes without characters at all, like enticing picnic spreads, complete with a few bottles of Coca-Cola, of course. The 1960s pansy series, which depicted a hand pouring Coke from a bottle into a glass amidst a field of flowers, was one of the last trays produced during the classic period.
In the 1970s, Coke began producing trays in new sizes, made from new materials. The company also began reissuing some of its older trays, especially those from the 1910s and 1920s. Commemorative trays were also made—one paid tribute to Coach Joe Paterno of Penn State’s Nittany Lions football team.
Although Coke produced hundreds of variations, a few trays stand out as particularly noteworthy. In 1908, for example, Coke distributed the “Vienna Art” tray to its particularly good customers; this tray was circular but was mounted on an ornate, gold-colored frame. Collectors have also become interested in trays produced for foreign markets, especially those made for Mexico, which usually depicted Mexican women. In addition to those for the United States and Mexico, trays were also made for Canada, Taiwan, and Italy.