Old Coke bottle sells for $110,700

To be fair, it’s a really, really old Coke bottle, a modified prototype of the curvaceous form that has become a pop culture icon. There are only three prototypes of the contour bottle known to survive, and this is the only one that is completely intact with nary a scratch, chip or any signs of wear whatsoever to mar its handsome green surface. In fact the hammer price is something of a bargain, all things considered.

It was born in 1915 when the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in Atlanta sought to differentiate itself from its competitors by replacing the plain, straight-sided bottles everyone used with “new bottle, a distinctive package” that would make Coke instantly recognizable. Once divorced from the drug store soda fountain counter, the beverage’s success in bottled form had spawned many imitators. Coca-Cola first tried to beat off the copycats with a distinctive diamond-shaped label in 1906, but because many stores kept their soda bottles in big buckets of ice, the paper labels often slipped off.

The 1,000 bottling plants franchised to produce Coca-Cola at that time were required to emboss their bottles with the famous cursive lettering trademark created by Frank M. Robinson, partner and bookeeper of Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John S. Pemberton who invented the soft drink in 1886. The problem was that as recognizable as the Coca-Cola lettering was, imitators were shameless about copying it for their sodas. Brands like Koka-Nola, Murphy’s Coca-Cola, Mo-Cola and Koke, either straight-up stole the script or modified it ever so slightly the public to dupe the public.

Coca-Cola launched a contest among the eight or 10 large glass works that supplied its current bottles to create a new design. Benjamin Thomas, co-founder of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company and developer of its worldwide bottling system, wrote that their mission was to create a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” The proposed designs were to be sent to the bottling company headquarters in Atlanta along with a prototype bottle. Eleven bottles were submitted.

A committee of Coca-Cola bottlers and lawyers assembled in Atlanta in August of 1915 to pick the winning design. The bottle designed by staff machinist Earl R. Dean at the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana, was the clear winner. He and his co-worker Clyde Edwards had been sent by shop foreman Alexander Samuelson to the public library to research the coca plant and kola nut, in the hope their shapes would provide inspiration. They didn’t. Instead, they came across an image of the curved, ribbed cocoa pod. Dean quickly drew up a sketch for a contoured, fluted bottle and within hours a few samples were created.

The first design did require some modification for practical reasons. The diameter of the base was smaller than that of the middle of the bottle. The former had to be widened and the latter slimmed down in order to keep the bottles from toppling over on the conveyor belt and so they’d fit into the bottling machines that were already in use. Root made the changes and created a new sample bottle for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company’s approval. The revised prototype was approved and a limited-run production followed to make bottles for testing in four bottling plants, two in Alabama (Birmingham and Anniston), one in Augusta, Georgia, and one in Nashville, Tennessee.

This was a top secret operation, with only the bottling plant owners and a few supervisors allowed on the premises during the trial runs. The bottles used were apparently destroyed after the testing (fragments from several of the bottles were found in the garbage dump of the Birmingham plant in an excavation in the late 1970s). The bottle’s new design worked like a charm. Cosmetic changes were made — the city was moved to the bottom of the bottle and the patent date to the middle of the bottle under the Coca-Cola logo — but the Coke bottle’s shape was set. The contour bottle was introduced nationally in April of 1917 and quickly became famous worldwide.

The bottle coming up for auction was discovered in an extensive collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia originally assembled by a retired Coca-Cola employee who had once worked for Chapman Root, founder of the Root Glass Company. The base of the bottle is stamped “Atlanta, GA, 1915” and under that is the date the bottle was patented by Alexander Samuelson (November 16, 1915). The Coca-Cola logo is on the bottom. The dates, placement of the trademark and its pristine condition indicate this was the modified prototype, not one of the first samples made at the Root factory, nor one of the bottles used in the test production. It is the only known example.

One of the original prototype bottles is owned by the Coca-Cola Company and was recently part of an exhibition dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the iconic bottle at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art. A second was sold at auction in 2011 for $250,000. Earl Dean’s first pencil sketch of the bottle sold at that same auction for $237,500.

“This bottle is a missing link in the history of Coca-Cola. From the moment it arrived in our hands, we knew it would create a buzz. It’s considered a highly important piece, not only by Coca-Cola collectors but also advanced bottle collectors,” Morphy said. The new owner of the bottle is a private collector who prefers to remain anonymous.

The auction took place over three days (April 12-14) and Coke memorabilia was only part of it. Most of the items were antique coin-operated games and gambling machines, Old West collectibles and assorted advertising. The catalogue is an absolute blast. It makes me yearn to create my own personal Coney Island in my basement.