Coca-Cola's Hold on America

Coca-Cola's Hold on America  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions.

Guess what the second most popular term in the world is after “hello.”  If you guessed good-bye, you’re wrong.  

“Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”
— Mark Twain

It’s “Coca-Cola.”  That’s how powerful branding is.  

When John Pemberton came up with the Coca-Cola formula in 1886 he had no idea the cash cow it would ultimately turn out to be.  He just wanted to get rich like the next guy and in the 1880s the fastest way to do that was in a bottle—through patent medicines.  

In the 19th century where doctors were few and far between cure-alls took a front seat proclaiming to fix everything from gout and rheumatism to cancer and tuberculosis.  Home remedies were everywhere and inventors guarded their “secret formulas” closely. 

Most of the secret formulas contained up to 50 per cent alcohol and consumers didn’t seem to mind.  You no doubt heard the word “snake-oil salesman”

Anyway, it’s in this arena Coca-Cola emerged. Pemberton was injured in one of the last battles of the Civil War and in constant pain. He added coca (cocaine) to his elixir and it seemed to help his pain.  

No one knew at the time how addictive cocaine was. They just knew it took away pain. 

Obviously, Coca-Cola has gone through a huge metamorphosis since then.  But those are its humble beginnings.   

By 1920, sales of Coca-Cola skyrocketed to more than $4 million in annual net profit.  A lot of it had to do with what’s called “aspirational” advertising.  

Success in life can be achieved simply by buying the right product. That was the message. And the right product, of course, was Coke.  It was the great equalizer. The 6-year-old sipping Coke at the table next to you was drinking the same Coke as the Pope.  No better.  No worse.  

Do things actually go better with Coke?

Like it or not, we’ve all been imprinted with Coke signs. Unless you’re blind. They’re everywhere and you probably grew up with them too.  

Plus, I think they’re cool.  The logo works for me--I really can’t say why. Maybe it’s because Coke signs have the look and feel of my “growing up” years. Pure nostalgia

Vintage tin and paper signs from products like Coke are some of the most popular collectibles today.  Others include trays, calendars and pieces made between 1875 and 1925 which have the brilliant early color lithography.  

Vintage items displaying beautiful women, pudgy babies, and handsome horsemen abound in these pieces and are the kinds of images calling out to collectors today.  

Why you see so many vintage Coke collectibles around now is because the company had a big advertising budget. The same was true of beer, tobacco, whiskey and other soft drink companies of the era.          

Mark Twain said it well.  “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

Coca-Cola pounced on the right kind of advertising.

On April 26 & 27 Morphy Auctions, Denver, Pa., featured its advertising auction.  In the sale were a number of Coca-Cola items.  


Tin Button Sign; “Coca-Cola,” right out of the box; paper just removed; 1950s; pristine condition; 24 inches diameter; $1,560.

Serving Tray; “Drink Coca-Cola,” pictures a high-brow lady; 1906; excellent condition; 13 inches tall;  $3,300.

Tin Sign; “Drink Coca-Cola,” 1920s; very good condition; 11 inches by 8 ¼ inches; $4,500.

Easel Sign; cutout cardboard; “Drink Coca-Cola,” 1931; near mint; 23 inches by 15 inches;  $5,700.

Sports Festoon; “Coca-Cola,” 9 piece; wire and plywood; made by Kay Displays; 1930s; largest 16 inches diameter;  $6,000.  


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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