With its iconic contour fluted line, the Coca-Cola bottle is without a doubt one of the most universally recognizable forms in the world. Renowned as a design classic and described by noted industrial designer, Raymond Loewy, as the “perfect liquid wrapper,” the bottle has been the focus of art, music and advertising. When Andy Warhol sought a shape to represent mass culture, he drew the bottle and when Volkswagen wanted to celebrate the shape of the Beatle, they compared the car to the bottle. 

So how did the bottle become so iconic? 

The contour bottle was born out of a need to defend the Coca-Cola brand against imitators and a cooperative effort between The Coca-Cola Company and its bottlers.

In 1899, two Tennessee lawyers, Joseph Whitehead and Benjamin Thomas, traveled to Atlanta to negotiate the rights to bottle Coca-Cola. The mere 13 year old beverage had already established itself as an incredibly popular fixture at soda fountains. In fountain form, Coca-Cola had grown from an average of nine drinks per day sold in 1886, to 1900 when it was sold in every one of the then 45 states. Thomas and Whitehead wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the drink by bottling it to be consumed outside the confines of a soda fountain. 

The contract the two signed was a geographic one, and The Coca-Cola Bottling Company began franchising the rights to bottle Coca-Cola in cities across the U.S. By 1920, over 1,200 Coca-Cola bottling operations had been established. Fountain and bottled sales would both continue to increase, and that popularity resulted in dozens of competitors trying to imitate the famous trademark of Coca-Cola to deceive the public into buying their drinks. 

The bottles used in those days were simple straight-sided bottles that were typically brown or clear. In an attempt to avoid mix-up, The Coca-Cola Company required that the bottlers emboss the famous Coca-Cola logo onto every bottle. However, competitor brands like Koka-Nola, Ma Coca-Co, Toka-Cola and even Koke copied or only slightly modified the Spencerian script logo. These competitor bottles sought to create confusion among consumers. While The Coca-Cola Company began litigation against these infringements, the cases often took years and the bottlers were constantly seeking further protection. 

In 1906, The Coca-Cola Company took its first step towards helping the bottlers, by producing a unique diamond shaped label.  The hope was that these colourful trademark labels would help genuine Coca-Cola stand out from its myriad of imitators. Unfortunately, Coca-Cola was often sold out of barrels of ice-cold water which would cause the labels to peel off. Some competitors like Koca-Nola even began to imitate the labels as well! 

The Coca-Cola Bottling Company sent a note to all of its members in 1912, noting that while The Coca-Cola Company had a distinctive logo they did not have any way to protect their business. They proposed the members band together and develop a “distinctive package” for their product. They worked with Harold Hirsch, the lead attorney for The Coca-Cola Company to best determine how to get a special bottle. In 1914, Hirsch made an impassioned plea for the bottling community to unite behind a distinctive package.

“We are not building Coca-Cola alone for today. We are building Coca-Cola forever, and it is our hope that Coca-Cola will remain the National drink to the end of time. The heads of your companies are doing everything in their power at considerable expense to bring about a bottle that we can adopt and call our own child, and when that bottle is adopted I ask each and every member of this convention to not consider the immediate expense that would be involved with changing your bottle, but to remember this, that in bringing about that bottle, the parent companies are bringing about an establishment of your own rights. You are coming into your own and it is a question of cooperation”. 

On April 26, 1915, the Trustees of the Coca-Cola Bottling Association agreed to spend $500 in order to develop a unique and distinctive bottle for Coca-Cola. Eight to 10 glass works across the U.S. subsequently received a challenge to bid and create a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” With that simple creative brief, the competition was on. 

The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, received the Coke brief and assembled to set out and formulate their design. Root’s team was composed of C.J. and William Root, Alexander Samuelson, Earl Dean and Clyde Edwards. Samuelsson, a Swedish immigrant who was the shop foreman, sent Dean and Edwards to the local library to research design concepts. When the team came across an illustration of the cocoa bean with its elongated shape and distinct ribs, they had their shape.  The Root team worked on the bottle design and Dean painstakingly drew out the now famous shape on paper. Soon enough, under the careful instruction of Samuelsson, a small batch of sample contoured bottles were formed.

The Root Glass Company immediately submitted a patent registration under Samuelsson’s name which was granted on November, 16th, 1915. That date was later incorporated into the lettering on the final design of the bottle. It is interesting to note that the patent submission was made without the signature embossed Coca-Cola script lettering. This omission was deliberately done to protect the secrecy of the design and the ultimate client. 

In early 1916, a joint committee composed of bottlers and Company officials met to choose the bottle design. The Root version was the clear winner and The Coca-Cola Company and the Root Glass Company entered an agreement to have six glass companies across the U.S. use the bottle shape. The contract called for the bottles to be coloured with “German Green” which was later called “Georgia Green” in homage to the home state of The Coca-Cola Company. It also called for the name of the city which was placing the glass order to be embossed on the bottom of the bottle. These city names entertained consumers for decades and led to kids to compare whose bottle was from further away for generations. The weight of glass was to be no less than 14.5 ounces, which when filled with the 6.5 ounces of Coca-Cola meant each bottle weighed more than a pound! 

While the new bottle design may have gone into production in early 1916, not every bottler embraced the opportunity to change out their entire glass stock. For many bottlers, the glass bottles were the most expensive portion of their business and they needed to be convinced to make the change. The company began to do that with national advertising featuring the exclusive bottle. The first national calendar featuring the bottle appeared in 1918 and by 1920, most of the bottlers were using the distinctive bottle. 

In 1923, it was time for the bottle patent to be renewed. It was the custom of the patent office to issue the patents on the Tuesday of each week and coincidentally for the 1923 patent, that Tuesday happened to fall on December 25! As the new patent was issued, the date on the side of the bottle was changed to December 25th, 1923 and the bottle was quickly nicknamed the “Christmas Bottle.” Patents expire after 14 years (the bottle patent was renewed again in 1937,) and by 1951, all patents on the shape had expired. The company approached the Patent Office claiming the bottle’s shape, the “distinctively shaped contour,” was so well known that it should be granted trademark status. While it was highly unusual for a commercial package to be granted that status, on April 12th, 1961, the Coca-Cola bottle was recognized as a trademark, in part bolstered by the fact that a 1949 study showed that less than 1% of Americans could not identify the bottle of Coke by shape alone. 

Now you know the story behind the bottle, but how has it managed to infuse itself into culture over time?

The Coke bottle has had many nicknames over the years. One of the more interesting of the monikers is the “hobbleskirt” bottle. The hobbleskirt was a fashion trend in the 1910s where the skirt had a very tapered look and was so narrow below the knees that it “hobbled” the wearer. The bottle was also known as the “Mae West” bottle after the famously curvaceous actress. The first reference to the bottle as a “contour” dates back to a 1925 issue of French magazine, Le Monde, which described the Coca-Cola bottle with a distinctive contour shape. To the general public however the shape is just “the Coke bottle.” 

One of the interesting notes about the shape is that while it is almost universally recognized, the form has evolved over the years. Just as the original patent from 1915 was a slightly fatter shape than the bottle that went into production, today’s aluminum bottle is a 22nd century update of the classic design. When King and Family-sized packaging were introduced in 1955, Raymond Loewy was part of the team that worked to recast the bottle but still keep the proper proportions. The Company took advantage of this classic shape on the cover of the 1996 Annual Report when we placed a silhouette of the bottle with the caption, “Quick, Name a Soft Drink.” 

While Andy Warhol is the artist most known for using the Coke bottle in art, the first popular artist to do in a painting was Salvador Dali, who included a Coke bottle in his 1943 work, Poetry in America. Later, artists like Sir Eduardo Paolozzi also used the form in the late 1940s. Robert Rauchenberg included Coca-Cola Bottles in his 1957 sculpture, A Coca-Cola Plan. However, Warhol’s use of the bottle in his 1962 show, The Grocery Store, cemented the “pop art” movement and enshrined the bottle as a favorite for succeeding generations of artists. Warhol’s quote from his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, sums up the artist choice of the bottle to represent mass culture. 

“What's great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the president knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” 

Today, as we celebrate 100 years of the patent of the famous contour shaped Coca-Cola bottle, it is indeed a shape for all who want to enjoy an ice cold, delicious and refreshing Coca-Cola. 

Ted Ryan is director of heritage communications at The Coca-Cola Company. This essay is featured in Kiss the Past Hello: 100 Years of the Coca-Cola Bottle.