Collecting Coca-Cola: A Sign of Good Taste

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Coca-Cola has been producing metal signs, like this “red button” example, for over a century, and collectors have been searching them out for nearly as long.

Few marketing logos are as ubiquitous as the familiar cherry red background and curving white script of Coca-Cola. Developed as a medicinal drink for those not consuming alcohol, Coca-Cola was invented in the late 1880s by John Stith Pemberton. While the drink’s taste has certainly played a role in its popularity, Coca-Cola has also been a savvy advertising operator over the years. For over a century, Coke has pumped out cleverly designed advertisements marked with the company’s instantly recognizable logo—and people have been collecting them for almost as long.

The Power of Good Advertising

Inspired by a variety of sources, Pemberton developed a medicinal drink that supposedly cured nearly anything that ailed you, from indigestion to addiction and impotence. As this was a patented formula, various businesses could produce the drink. After a decade or so of disagreements and legal actions between multiple players, Asa Candler emerged in 1888, owning most of the shares of The Coca-Cola Company. The brand’s history is a convoluted tale, with a surprising level of intrigue, but alas —I would like to focus on the advertising.

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The Contour bottle depicted here, as the classic Coca-Cola bottle shape is known, was introduced in 1916 and became a brand standard in 1920.

An iconic logo recognized worldwide, the Spencerian script text was developed by Pemberton’s accountant, Frank Mason Robinson. As for the classic red, historians and Coke-enthusiasts claim it arose from a need to differentiate barrels of the drink from similar barrels filled with alcohol. In the late 19th century, many drinks were distributed in barrels. Still, only alcohol was taxed—so companies distributing non-alcoholic beverages sought to make their own barrels distinct to avoid accidental taxation. In light of these taxes, Coca-Cola started marking its barrels with bright red paint. The high-contrast and eye-catching combination of these two elements lent itself perfectly to advertising.

From the onset, it was clear that those surrounding Coca-Cola understood the power of marketing. So once Candler had control of the company in its entirety, he set out on a campaign to make the Coke brand inescapable. To that end, Coke created painted and lithographed metal signs, often called tackers, adorned with their logo. They distributed these signs to businesses at little or no cost to the owners, which proved to be a fruitful move, as demand for the drink saw a nice uptick. By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the soda was becoming wildly popular.

Around this time, Coca-Cola began producing more durable signage. They wanted to provide businesses with advertisements that would stand up to the elements and last the test of time. Similar in style to the tackers mentioned above, these new signs were steel with carefully baked-on layers of enamel. These porcelain-coated signs could withstand being hung outside but were slightly more fragile. Nevertheless, they did not require Coca-Cola to replace them frequently.

The porcelain sign remained one of Coca-Cola’s go-to modes of advertising until the demands of World War II affected their production. Once the war was over, Coca-Cola shifted most of their advertising to more cost-effective signage, like aluminum and plastic. Despite being produced for a relatively narrow window of around 35 years, these porcelain and steel signs have been a hot commodity for collectors for decades. Unfortunately, collecting and selling these signs can be challenging to navigate, as many reproductions and fantasy items are available on the market. Still, there are a few things you can look for to ensure you are considering an authentic Coca-Cola sign.

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Some reproductions are clearly marked, like this sign, but the authenticity of others can sometimes be difficult to discern.

Identifying Signs

Many different types of signs were produced by Coca-Cola during this time. The earliest porcelain signs were large rectangular shapes with straightforward text, like “Ice Cold Coca-Cola Sold Here,” or simply decorated with their primary logo. In the 1920s, many signs were produced for specific business types, like those for gas stations that featured a small chalkboard area for attendants to record the day’s gas prices and large signs meant for general stores, pharmacies, and other businesses that had a “privilege panel” above the logo, so owners could put their business’s name on the sign alongside Coke.

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Flange signs were attached to the side of buildings for greater visibility of the advertisement, like this Coke sign.

Flange signs mounted perpendicular to a wall also became popular marketing vehicles in the 1920s, allowing Coke to advertise to those traveling down the street. This period also introduced the most iconic Coca-Cola sign design, the “red button,” the classic circular red style. Various other sign shapes, like shields, were introduced before World War II. Many reproductions are fantasy items or items that were never produced and thus will use advertising imagery pulled from other sources like print advertisements. Having a rough idea of when specific sign designs and styles were made can aid you in judging an item’s authenticity.

There are easier ways to judge an item’s authenticity, though, like the magnet test. If you can see a sign in person, see if a magnet will stick to its surface. Steel will hold magnets, while aluminum (which is frequently used in reproductions) will not. If the item is available online, consider asking the seller to post a video of this test being done. Use this opportunity to also examine the back of the sign. Does it have a similar level of wear as the front of the sign? If the front appears to show quite a bit of damage, but the back is in near perfect condition, proceed cautiously as this could signify a reproduction. Does the rust on the back appear similar in texture to that on the front if rust is present? Exposed metal areas of authentic signs, particularly those hung outside, will have a dark appearance, unlike some reproductions’ bright orange and powdering texture.

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The chipping on porcelain signs, like the layer of white enamel that has been exposed under the red enamel of this sign, can be an indicator of age as it reflects the historic production process.

Speaking of damage, carefully examine any chips in the enamel surface. Suppose the chipping is predominantly around the edges of the sign. In that case, it could be a signifier that the sign is a reproduction. Authentic signs will sometimes have chipping and damage over their surface. Carefully inspect the edges of these chips, looking for distinct layers. Creating porcelain signs requires the application of colors to be layered, one on top of another. Suppose you are looking at a red sign but can see white or another color peeking out of the edge of a chip. In that case, that can indicate the sign is authentic.

This layering process also produces another good indicator of age: shelving. Shelving occurs when the enamel colors overlap previous layers. This is done in case any design layer ends up a bit misaligned. Shelving causes a slight buildup in the design surrounding text and images. For example, if you tilt an authentic sign at an angle or run your fingers around the text, you will perceive a slightly raised area around the edges. That is the shelving. The presence of shelving can be an indication that an item is authentic.

Finally, try to always see a sign in person, if possible. If the item is online, do your best to vet the seller to see if they are offloading a lot of similar signs. If they are, this could mean that they are either a legitimate dealer or a seller of reproductions—use your own judgment. Buying and selling Coca-Cola signs can be a fun, rewarding, and challenging process. In the meantime, have a Coke and a smile.

Megan Shepherd is a curator, freelance writer, and artist. She has worked in fine art museums for a decade and holds two master’s degrees in the field. When she takes a break from art, she enjoys science-fiction books, antiquing, backpacking, and eating her weight in Dim Sum. 

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