How a Terre Haute Company Created a Coca-Cola Icon
In 1912, Coca-Cola Bottling Company, then the most popular soft drink in the world, had a serious problem, and it would take a plucky Terre Haute glass company to solve it.
The first three decades of the Coca-Cola Company were filled with more intrigue and deception than a Spanish-language soap opera: from snake oil claims to forged signatures to overdose deaths. It’s nothing short of miraculous the company survived at all. But its greatest challenge came from changing consumer tastes in the 1910s.
Until 1912, Coca-Cola had primarily relied on selling its concentrated syrup to retailers, who would then mix it with carbonated water to produce the distinctive beverage. But as bottled soft drinks became more popular and concentrated syrup sales dipped, Coca-Cola found a new fly in the ointment: cola knock-offs.
Dozens of imitators started selling similar soft drinks with names that seemed to tease copyright and patent laws: among them Koka-Cola, Toka-Cola and even a soda called Brad’s Drink, later renamed Pepsi-Cola (you may have heard of that last one). Not only did these companies mimic the drink, but also the label and even the bottle. Coca-Cola faced the getting crushed under the weight of its own success.
By 1914, Coca-Cola executives decided a new bottle would be the solution. Previously, the several companies bottling Coca-Cola used different designs, but this would be one design used by all companies for all time, the permanent packaging for “America’s National Drink”. Designers were tasked with creating a bottle design so unique that “you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground…” An ambitious undertaking.
The Root Glass Company of Terre Haute rose to the challenge. The company’s executive staff met with designers and asked for a bottle inspired by the kola nut or coca leaf, giving the bottle an organic design as yet unseen in the beverage bottling industry of the day.
Unable to find drawings of either plant at the local library (only if they had the Internet!), designer Earl R. Dean instead used the cocoa pod as inspiration, sketching a bottle wider at the base and middle. After some adjustments, the Terre Haute bottling company sent the prototype to Coca-Cola with crossed fingers.
In 1916, Coca-Cola browsed the fields of contenders and the Root Glass Company design won by a landslide. Not only would Coca-Cola reproduce the design, but would also retain the unique green-tinted glass, a color created by using the sand native to Terre Haute. Designer Earl R. Dean was lauded for his creativity and awarded a “job-for-life” with the Root Glass Company.
Coca-Cola renewed the bottle’s patent in 1923 after some minor changes, but eventually the patent couldn’t be renewed. Instead, the Patent Office did something unprecedented: being that Coca-Cola was such an iconic brand, and its bottle design so unique to the beverage, the bottle itself transcended patents and could be classified as trademark, which are renewed in perpetuity every ten years.
And that’s exactly what Coca-Cola has done…with a bottle designed by an ambitious Hoosier glass company.