The all-American drink in the shapely bottle turns 100 this year. Jonathan Glancey explains why its perfect curves make it a timeless design – and a work of art.

World War II introduced the world to Coca-Cola

“An army marches on its stomach” is an age old maxim attributed variously to Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and the 2nd Century Roman physician Claudius Galen. Armies have always needed food, but what should they drink? When, from 1942, US troops poured into Europe the answer was easy: Coca-Cola from those famous, shapely bottles.

During World War II, US forces drank an alleged five billion bottles of Coke, shipped – so the drinks company promised – to any theatre of war at a fixed price of five cents a pop. Wartime posters depicted grinning GIs setting off to war, Coke bottles in hand, and sharing a Coke with newly liberated children in Italy. Press photographers, meanwhile, sent back shots of battle-hardened infantry swigging Coke as they pushed towards the Rhine.

World War II had introduced the world to Coca-Cola. Today the drink concocted in Atlanta, Georgia in 1886 by John Pemberton, pharmacist, former Confederate army colonel and morphine addict is available in every country in the world except, officially, Cuba and North Korea. In 1985, Coke went galactic: it was made available on board the Space Shuttle Challenger.

And, yet, although it is sold in all sorts and sizes of bottles and dispensers today, the defining image of the world’s most famous fizzy drink is the curvaceous Coca-Cola bottle matched to the company’s flamboyant 19th Century scripted logo. Millions of people say Coke tastes best from a bottle, and whether this is scientifically provable or not, these millions know what they like: the look of the bottle and the way it fits so neatly into the hand.

Ahead of the curve

According to Raymond Loewy, the renowned French-born US industrial designer, “The Coke bottle is a masterpiece of scientific, functional planning. In simpler terms, I would describe the bottle as well thought out, logical, sparing of material and pleasant to look at. The most perfect ‘fluid wrapper’ of the day and one of the classics in packaging history.” Loewy liked to say the “goal of design is to sell” and “the loveliest curve I know is the sales curve”: the Coca-Cola bottle boasts lovely curves and is a globally recognised design that sells like… Coca-Cola. 

Intriguingly, Coca-Cola had been selling its patented sweet syrup for a quarter of a century – with caffeine but, from 1903, without cocaine – to retailers who mixed it with soda through bar-top “fountains” and bottled it themselves before the drinks company produced its own “fluid wrapper”. This was during World War I, although before US soldiers set sail for Europe in 1917. By this time, copycat drinks abounded, among them Cheracola, Dixie Cola, Cocanola. The “real thing” needed to establish its identity, and supremacy.

In 1915, Coca-Cola’s company lawyer Harold Hirsch organised a design competition to find the ideal bottle. Eight packaging companies were invited to come up with “a bottle which a person could recognize even if they felt it in the dark, and so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was.”

The winner was the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, whose Earl R Dean had been inspired by an illustration of a cocoa pod he found thumbing through an encyclopaedia. Dean’s winning design – more Mae West than Louise Brooks – proved a little too curvaceous for comfort: it toppled over on the assembly line of bottling plants. Slimmed down for 1916, it became the standard Coke bottle four years later. By 1928 bottle sales overtook soda fountain sales. This was the bottle that went to war in 1941 and conquered the world.

The only significant change in its 100-year history came in 1957 when Raymond Loewy and John Ebstein, his chief of staff, replaced the embossed Coca-Cola logo with bright white applied lettering. This brought the bottle up-to-date, although the logo remained the characterful design created by Frank Mason Robinson in 1886. Robinson was Colonel Pemberton’s bookkeeper. He modelled his lettering on ‘Spencerian’ script, a form of standardised writing for US business correspondence devised by Platt Rogers Spencer in 1840, a quarter of a century before the typewriter. Robinson had also come up with the name Coca-Cola, a play on cocaine and kola, the nut Pemberton extracted caffeine from for his patent ‘medicinal’ syrup.

Fizzy Pop art?

The Coca-Cola bottle was an early example of mass, populist design that was also the best of its kind – in 1950, it was the first commercial product to feature on the hallowed cover of Time magazine – which is why such a canny and successful designer as Raymond Loewy whose work encompassed streamlined railway locomotives, glamorous automobiles, Greyhound buses and space station interiors for NASA thought so highly of it.

As Andy Warhol, an artist who made play over and again with the image of the Coke bottle from the early ’60s, wrote in 1975, “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.”

Other artists – from Salvador Dali to Robert Rauschenberg – had fallen for the Coke bottle, too. It became a true icon of Pop art, and in the 1960s had a distinct effect on car design, too. “Coke-bottle styling”, most probably initiated by Raymond Loewy with his Studebaker Avanti of 1962 – like a Coke bottle, it was said, laid on its side – inspired the design of such charismatic cars as the 1963 Buick Riviera and the various Pontiac GTOs, Chevrolet Camaros and Dodge Chargers that followed soon after. In Britain, Rootes of Luton offered the 1968 Vauxhall Victor, while in 1970 Ford launched the Mk III Cortina, a car as American in spirit as only Dagenham could have produced. As it happens, the Ford Motor Company logo employs an almost identical Spencerian script as Coca-Cola does. Here are two populist companies linked by logos and, for a short spell at least, by product design.

Until 4 October, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta is showing The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100. The largest donation made to the funding of the museum, designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning US architect Richard Meier and opened in 1983, was from Robert W Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola. It was Woodruff who had issued instructions “to see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for 5 cents wherever he is and whatever it costs the company.” That bottle is now a seemingly ever youthful centenarian. And although it has received minor tweaks on the way, even Raymond Loewy, father of built-in obsolescence – the title of his 1951 autobiography is Never Leave Well Enough Alone– knew when he had seen the real thing.

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