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It was on this date in history, March 12, 1894, that the Coca-Cola Bottle made its first appearance. The first bottled Coke was sold out of a candy store in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Joseph A. Biedenharn was the owner of that candy store in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He felt that bottling Coke would boost sales and Biedenharn put the drink into Hutchinson bottles which was a common and reusable glass bottle that bore no resemblance to the modern Coke bottle. For nearly 20 years, Coca-Cola Bottles came in all shapes and sizes.
Biedenharn sent the owner of the Coke formula, Asa Griggs Candler, a case. But Candler saw no future in bottling and continued to stick with fountain sales.
This thinking led Candler to make what is possibly the biggest business mistake any one person has ever made. How, you ask?
Coca-Cola Bottles Increase Sales
Here’s how. Just a few short years later, around 1899, Candler sold the national bottling rights to the secret Coca-Cola formula to two attorneys from Chattanooga, Tennessee for — get this — one dollar. However, Candler excluded Vicksburg, Mississippi, possibly thinking to protect the candy store and original bottler, Joseph A. Biedenharn.
It has been reported that Candler never even collected the dollar. And, to make matters worse, the contract was poorly written and stipulated that a bottle of Coke would cost 5 cents and had no end date, a legal oversight that resulted in the price remaining the same until 1959.
Another early bottler was the Valdosta Bottling Works of Valdosta, Georgia, which began bottling Coke in 1897. This came just three years after Joseph A. Biedenharn installed bottling machinery in his Mississippi soda fountain and two years before the national bottling rights were sold to the attorneys in Tennessee.
If Candler was trying to protect Biedenharn when he sold the national bottling rights to the brothers in Tennessee, you have to ask yourself, why didn’t he include the Valdosta Bottling Works? However, there is no mention of Valdosta in the contract.
Eugene Roberts “E.R.” Barber and his brother-in-law J.F. Holmes started bottling Coca-Cola in June 1897 at the Valdosta location. You can still see the E.R. Barber house, as it now serves as the Valdosta Lowndes Chamber of Commerce.
The “Bottling Process” Had Problems
In a 1954 interview with the Valdosta Daily Times, E.R. Barber told the paper, “At first we would include only six bottles of Coca-Cola in each crate. The drink was well-accepted and our customers requested larger shipments of Coca-Cola.” Barber continued, “However, we soon discovered that we were running into a great deal of trouble (with larger shipments) because of the fact that the rubber washer on the stopper caused a not-too-wholesome odor in the drink after it had been bottled for a period of 10 days to two weeks.”
Barber solved this problem around the turn of the century (1900) when he found a bottling machine invented by the old Crown, Cork, and Seal Company and immediately placed an order for the machine. The machine served them well for decades to come.
Meanwhile – In Tennessee
The two attorneys in Tennessee, Benjamin F. Thomas and Joseph B. Whitehead, realize they need more operating capital and take on another partner, John T. Lupton. It became apparent to the three men early in the startup, in order to meet the terms of the contract with Asa Candler concerning expansion, they’d needed to create a franchising system. A system that could be rolled out swiftly and simply.
The men then decided to split the United States between them. Within a few years they had granted enough franchises to local bottlers, that they no longer bottled anything themselves. As the parent bottler, the three territories – the three attorneys – basically acted as wholesalers, buying syrup from Candler’s Atlanta Coca-Cola Company and selling it to the franchises they had setup.
In 1915, the bottlers put out a call for a new bottle design. The winning design, produced by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, gave the world the iconic contoured bottle we know today.
Fifty years later, there were more than eleven hundred franchises descended from those three parent bottlers.
After going public in 1919, the Coca-Cola Company began a long and costly buy back of all the bottling franchise rights Candler had sold in 1899 for one dollar.
They completed the buy back in 1986.
The iconic bottle certainly has an interesting and storied history.
If you’d like to learn about another Coca-Cola legend, click on the link Coca-Cola Millionaires of Florida.