One hundred years ago, John Styth Pemberton concocted some goop in a three-legged iron kettle in his backyard.
That goop became "The Real Thing," and last weekend at the Sheraton-Anaheim, a century of Coca-Cola collectibles was celebrated by five California chapters of the Cola Clan and memorabilia nuts from all over the country.
"It's Americana," explained Mark Lawrence, co-chairman of the convention, which attracted 600 and included an auction, swap meet and centennial display. "Coke has had classic ads, classic signs and calendars since the turn of the century. . . . It reminds people of their youth. Nostalgia became big in the '70s, and that's when Coke collecting really took off."
Among the more than 500 items exhibited were:
- A display of calendars, one from each decade--the oldest dating from 1894--featuring the work of such artists as Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth.
- A two-foot-high radio, circa 1931, in the shape of a Coca-Cola bottle.
- A "Drink Coca-Cola" sign depicting World War II U.S. fighter planes, some dropping bombs, some going down.
- A display of contemporary Coca-Cola bottles from all over the world. (Did you know Coke bottles from Aruba are different from those of Curacao, which are different from those of Madagascar . . . ?)
Coke barbecues and thermometers notwithstanding, Lawrence considered the oddest item at the show the "root bottle" prototype, a design that he said was to have gone into production in 1916 but was too fat to go through the machines.
But Don Hale of Cypress, a 29-year Coca-Cola employee who has 800 pins and vending machines dating back to 1930, felt the oddest item at Cola Clan conventions is the collectors. "You gotta be odd to collect this stuff," he said.
Odd or not, Lawrence, a sixth-grade schoolteacher in Riverside, began collecting 16 years ago when the manager of the movie theater where he was working said he could take home the Coca-Cola waterfall sign on the candy counter.
Dave Brackett of Fairfield began when he became intrigued with "the little short standard hobble skirt" bottles, which may still be found in parts of the United States.
Now Collects Cans
"I started to notice that in between the ones with white lettering were some with embossed glass," Brackett recalled. "I said to myself, 'Gosh, those are probably going to be worth something someday,' so I started pulling them off the shelves. I ended up with 1,200 of that style bottle. But I'll sell the whole bunch to you if you want--I'm a can collector now."
Brackett's cans were featured at the show. Most unusual was the slope-shouldered "clicker," which clicks open and closed and was actually considered a bottle by its makers. According to Brackett, it was released in Oklahoma City as an experiment. "It didn't work," he said. Also included was the prototype of the can astronauts used to drink the first Coke in space aboard the Challenger on a successful mission last July.
Robert Newman of La Habra, who buys and sells neon signs, has been collecting for 15 years. He doesn't recall what first attracted him to Coke memorabilia, but over the years, he said, he's come to appreciate the company for its high-quality graphics. "Look at this porcelain piece," he said. "These graphics are sharp--the logo is unique, the colors lively. . . ."
The actual 100th birthday of Coca-Cola is May 6, at which time the company will release a centennial celebration collection of 100 pins. The Cola Clan, an organization now boasting 4,000 memorabilia collectors worldwide, will hold its 13th national convention the week of July 4 in Atlanta, the birthplace of Coke.
3 Events Per Year
But that didn't keep Alda Lane of Atlanta from attending the California convention. In fact, Lane, who "retires railroad employees" for a living, said she goes to at least three Coke events a year. "You find the better quality items at a more competitive price," she explained.
Most of the collectors were proud to admit they almost exclusively drink Coca-Cola products, which may range from Sprite to Diet Coke, Cherry Coke and even--shudder -- New Coke.
According to Newman, Classic Coke is "blowing the daylights out of" New Coke.
"I think the Cola Clan will support anything Coca-Cola does, no matter what," Newman said. "But personally, I definitely like the Classic better--the new stuff tastes like Pepsi. The first time I tasted it, I sat there for half an hour saying this is the dumbest thing they ever did."
Brackett agreed--to a point.
"Whenever I'm buying, it's Classic," Brackett said. "But I'm a can collector. Those New Coke cans come full. Someone has to drink 'em."