At a time when such products are derided as a major contributor to obesity and its related consequences, it may be difficult for some to celebrate the cultural milestone we mark today. On this day in 1894, Joe Biedenharn of Vicksburg, Mississippi used his soda water equipment to package the very first bottled Coca-Cola.
The fizzy treat that Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton had concocted 38 years earlier had become very successful, but its distribution was limited to city drugstores. Building on that success, Biedenharn recognized the potential of more rural marketing.
In a 1939 letter to Harrison Jones, a Coca-Cola company vice president, he described his thought process; “Consumer demand has increased and was increasing rapidly, as a Coca-Cola would only be had in the cities where the fountains were dispensing it. The thought struck one day, ‘Why not bottle it for our country trade?’ We were in the soda water bottling game and it was easy to start it going.”
When Biedenharn began distributing the bottled beverage, the price was 70 cents per case. Adjusting for inflation, that equates to approximately $19 in 2014 currency values. That said, if one were to buy 24 canned Cokes today, the average price would be around $13. Apparently, automation and economies of scale have worked in the public’s favor.
Of course, for Coke aficionados, canned beverages are tantamount to heresy. For those with a more discerning soda palate, the closest analogue to Biedenharn’s product is the so-called “Mexican” coke made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Some claim this version provides a more “authentic” Coke taste.
As most consumers know, the Coke bottle has become just as iconic as the beverage within. When Biedenharn began bottling Coke, he used the bottles he had on hand. According to the Vicksburg, MIss., Coke museum, the earlest bottles were Hutchinson blob-top bottles embossed with “Biedenharn Candy Company, Vicksburg, Miss.” They were sealed with a rubber disk, pushed into the neck of the bottle and held with a wire. The bottles were used for only a short time because the rubber changed the flavor of the drink after about a week.
Until 1913, the bottles varied in size, shape and color. Coca-Cola recognized the need for a uniform and distinctive package. Ben Thomas, one of the original patent bottlers, told his colleagues: “We need a bottle which a person can recognize as a Coca-Cola bottle when he feels it in the dark.”
As a result of inaccurate research by Root Glass Co. of Terre Haute, Ind., a bottle was designed that resembled the cacao bean (the source of chocolate) instead of the coca bean. Nonetheless, the Root Glass Co.’s design was selected at a meeting of the seven bottlers in 1916.
The squat bottle featured a highly exaggerated center section that was later trimmed down. The resultant “contour,” “Mae West” or “Hobble skirt” bottle — as it has been variously termed — was born. In 1960, the bottle was recognized by the United States patent office, a distinction among bottles shared at the time by only one other manufacturer.
Since its humble beginnings in an Atlanta drugstore, Coca-Cola has sold an inestimably great amount of its carbonated wonder. It is arguably one of the most important cultural icons of the modern world. It is certainly among the most recognizable. Since that fateful day in 1894, it’s also one of the most readily available.