The Beginning Of Coca-Cola Collectables & The Popularity of Coca-Cola Trays
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The Birth Of The Coke Tray
In 1890, lithography and the capability to print a number of colors on tin came just at the right time for Coca-Cola. This simple tray was one of the items that helped catapult Coca-Cola into its beginnings of becoming both the king of soft drinks, and marketing as well. Coca-Cola was not alone here in using lithography to make trays and marketing items. Beer producers, tobacco producers also jumped on the tin bandwagon. Coca-Cola just did it better and did more of it. I believe Coca-Cola trays have been so popular because of their beautiful artwork and images. The trays and other items also seem to be a reflection of American history and styles, while at the same time being tied to a well loved American product-Coca-Cola!
Back around the turn of the century marketers like Coca-Cola had no radio, or television to promote Coca-Cola’s, or any company’s advertising message, and get it into the homes of American consumers. There were newspapers and magazines. But if you wanted to do more to catch the eye and tempt consumers, you had to find a more aggressive way of doing so. The simple tin Coke serving tray came about as marketers and merchandisers began to implement some basic promotional strategies to entice customers. Those innovative practices back then, probably seem relatively commonplace today.
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Coca-Cola's Take On Trays & Collectables
Coca-Cola’s philosophy back then, is expressed by Phil Mooney, the Coca-Cola Company’s own historian and archivist for the last thirty years. He is quoted on the Coca-Cola website as follows:
“So within the soda fountain business, you created things like serving trays, tip trays, calendars, and posters--things that you would actually use in the business. They could serve anything on a tray that had a Coca-Cola trademark on it. It could be coffee or it could be tea. Either way, right in front of you would be this image of a pretty woman drinking a Coca-Cola. So maybe next time that you’re ordering something, you’d order a Coke.
The marketers were tremendously creative in producing things that you’d carry on your person, things like wallets, purses, cufflinks, pocket mirrors for the ladies, bookmarks, stamp holders, and notebooks. Let’s say your wallet has a Coca-Cola emblem on it. Well, every time you pull out that wallet to pay a bill, it was a reminder to try a Coca-Cola. Or say you had a lady’s pocket mirror. Every time you adjusted your make-up, you’d get that reminder as well. All of these items had a very utilitarian element—they were things that you used every day in the course of living your daily life. Yet each was an invitation for you to try a glass or a bottle of Coca-Cola.”
Maureen O' Sullivan & Johnny Weismeiller Trayr
There Was No Memorabilia Or Hobby!
For decades Coca-Cola produced just about everything you can think of, but there was no hobby of collecting these items. Over a period of years, there were obviously people who held on to some old Coke items, maybe for no particular reason at all. Possibly because they just liked the items. There were also many signs left on old buildings and cafes around the country (especially in the south). Some soda fountain operators or Coca-Cola employees may have held on to old Coke items from the past, but there was no formalized hobby and no one who called themselves a collector!
Collecting Coke Specialty Items Becomes Popular
Around 1972 the hobby got a shot in the arm. Americans had just gone through the decade of the 60’s with it’s assassinations, demonstrations, city burnings and a rebellious group of teenagers listening to music that had moved from Pat Boone to Iron Butterfly. Teenagers from the past seemed mild, clean and polite by comparison to what had been going on. Many Americans were ready to return to seemingly simpler times, that in hindsight seemed relatively innocent and harmonious. Even a new country song written by singer "Dottie West" seemed to exemplify the simple feeling America longed for, and Coca-Cola asked the country singer to adapt a few words from her song for a Coke commercial. The words used were, “I was raised on country sunshine.” The song went on, “I’m happy with the simple things, A Saturday night dance, a bottle of Coke, and the joy that the bluebird brings." This became a popular advertising campaign for Coke and probably did a good job of reflecting America's sentiments for the simpler more innocent times. Emotions are tied very closely with buyers and why they purchase, and no other brand probably does a better job of tying emotions to a product.
Coke trays among other Coke items captured these old images and feelings as good or better than anything at that time. On top of that, the hobby became a bit more formalized when the first collectable guide called the “Illustrated guide to the Collectibles of Coca-Cola” was written by Cecil Munsey. It was full of merchandise images and specialty items put out by Coca-Cola over past decades that were like a vivid reminder of the past, and it became like the Bible of Coca-Cola collecting! Closely following this event, the Coca-Cola Collectors Club was formed in 1974. (www.cocacolaclub.org)
Coca-Cola Collectables & History
I think we all know of the significance advertising plays in representing American history. Think about the advertising slogans, images and icons of American advertisers. Hershey’s Chocolate, Bon Ami soap, miracle cures of all sorts, as well as icons like the Quaker Oats man, Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker and of course the image of Santa that Coke helped create. You can talk about old playing cards, old postcards, old cans, containers, Sears Catalogues and much, much more, but nothing more seems to represent collecting and the tie to the American life better than Coke and possibly the famous Coca-Cola tray itself! In fact, I don’t think that any other business or marketing collectables have come close to reaching the heights and popularity of Coca-Cola, it’s trays and collectables! These trays truly do represent and capture a significant part of America's emotions and past.
Coca-Cola Did Not See The Phenomenon Coming!
The interesting thing about this whole phenomenon is that Coca-Cola did not create this hobby. They had no idea that people were holding on to Coca-Cola items, and were as surprised as anyone when the hobby took hold and the collectors clubs started. This hobby has a true grass roots background. In fact, over the years, Coca-Cola actually took all the surplus promotional items (trays and all) on a regular basis, to the trash dump. In fact, stacks of outdoor metal signs and boxes of serving trays would be thrown out like common trash. We’re talking signs, trays and more that would be worth hundreds of dollars each today! Coca-Cola truly had no idea that people were going to be collecting any of their promotional items. My dad, who was a driver for Coca-Cola told me that the drivers were given so many signs to put up, they would throw them away, as they didn’t want to be seen coming back to the plant with signs they had not put up. I also remember, my dad giving away trays to the neighbors all the time as a youngster. In fact the Coca-Cola company today, is collecting back many of the items they gave away over the last century. Today, if you are looking for authentic vintage coke trays, the prices may shock you.
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There are Basically Two Broad Approaches To The Hobby
Today the hobby can basically be broken down into two categories.
- The collecting of what is called “vintage” Coca-Cola items which is generally considered 1960’s and before. These collectors are willing to sometimes invest very large sums of money for the more rare items.
- The other category is the collectables from the 1970’s to present. These people are sometimes referred to as new age collectors. Many of the hobbyists in this group are not worrying so much about value or the future, but are collecting more for fun because the newer items are easy to find and collect.
If you want to be encouraged about the value of Coke collectables, try finding some authentic late 1800’s or early 1900’s Coke items. You could be talking thousands of dollars for items in great condition. Many smaller items bring in hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Not bad for items that were originally given away for free. The downside is that those who know least about Coke collectables, think virtually everything that has the Coke logo on it, is worth more than it true value.
COKE TRAY TRIVIA
No one really knows how many Coke trays have been produced in the U.S. and around the world since Coca-Cola began producing trays. No one at Coca-Cola kept records of the types and numbers of trays produced over the decades.
- Believe it or not, Coca-Cola generally consults the same collector books that collectors use to learn about trays and other collectables.
- In 1897, Coke began using the rather innocent image of a famous actress and singer on their ads. Her name was Hilda Clark,. Clark was so successful as a model, she was featured on the company's trays nine times from 1899 to 1903. She also appeared on calendars, posters and menus.
- For the first several years, all Coke trays were round, generally measuring between nine and 10 inches across, but by 1905 the round trays disappeared.
The Much Sought After, "Topless" Coca-Cola Tray
A Topless Tray?
- Believe it or not, there was a "Topless Tray." This beautiful tray was produced in 1905 and features a handsome woman, nude to the waist, and advertised Coca-Cola as a great mixer for cocktails. However, the tray was not put out by the Coca-Cola company we all know and love. Instead, it was put out by Coca-Cola's independent franchise bottler from Chicago, Illinois. They were evidently not as image conscious as the national company. Today, it is worth thousands of dollars!.
- The early 1900’s seemed to depict women wearing lacy Victorian style clothes, while in the 1920’s, the flapper appeared on trays. By the 1930’s women were shown in bathing suits.
- In the first half or so of the 1900’s, celebrities were often honored or featured on Coke trays. Stars such as Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, from the first Tarzan movies were used. Others included Lillian Russell, Lillian Nordica, Madge Evans, Frances Dee, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Louis Armstrong, Anita Bryant and Ray Kroc.
- In 1910, the rectangular tray was introduced. The rectangular tray measured 13 ¼ inches wide by 10 ½ inches and soon became the standard size for Coke’s serving trays, at least for a while.
- The earliest trays often used the slogan, “Delicious and Refreshing.” Many trays in the 20's, 30's and beyond did not used slogans at all, but they always included the important and very well known Coca-Cola logo.
- Slogans changed over time to include phrases like “Drink Coca-Cola,” “Coke Refreshes You Best,” “Here’s a Coke for you,” and “Be Really Refreshed!”
- Most of these early Coke trays used relatively drab colors with green and brown borders. But by the 1920s, Coke began to get in the groove with more trays featuring the now familiar Coca-Cola red.
- Until Coke produced a tray showing a male and female character together in 1926, all early Coke trays featured a female model, generally shown with a bottle or glass of Coke.
- World War II became the focus during the 1940’s with images of war brides, woman workers supporting the war effort and families back at home!
- The "Pansy series" produced during the 1960’s , depicted a hand, pouring Coke from a bottle into a glass within a field of flowers in the background. It was one of the last trays produced in what most collectors refer to as the vintage period.
- Trays issued between 1897 and about 1968 can generally be worth hundreds to thousands of dollars depending on condition and importance.
Trays From The 1970s and Beyond
- Since about 1970 a number of tray sizes and shapes have been produced in new and varied materials. This is one reason why the 1970’s basically has been labeled as the time when vintage trays ended. Today, you may find a small rectangular, large rectangular, deep rectangular, oval shapes, round shapes and even TV tray sizes.
- Most Coke trays especially in modern days have the official Coca-Cola logo on the rear, along with a date and a message about the tray. Quite often if a tray looks like an old design and it has these items on the rear of a tray, it is an authorized reproduction.
- There are many authorized commemorative trays which are dated along with some type of story or history on the rear of the tray.
- Unauthorized trays typically have no date or information to be found whatsoever, and no permission or rights have been granted by Coca-Cola to produce the tray.
- Coca-Cola began reissuing some of its older trays, from the first 20 years of the century, as it became aware of the hobby of collecting Coke items. Hundreds of trays have been produced since 1970.
- In 1971, the first plastic trays were produced. In my mind, it was a sad day in Coke history!
- Commemorative trays issued by Coca-Cola also began in the 70’s such as a tribute tray to Penn State’s Joe Paterno.
- Trays have been produced in Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Italy, China and the United States.
- Many companies have been involved in the production of Coke trays, however their names are generally not printed on the trays. The two most significant in modern day tray collecting or “Markatron” and the “Ohio Art Company.”
Popular Categories For Collecting or Specializing In Trays
- Santa and Christmas Trays
- Norman Rockwell Trays
- Olympics Trays
- Colleges, Universities and Football Teams
- National Conventions
- Bottling Plant Anniversaries
- Annual Festivities
- Other Coke Products
- Famous Women
- Noteworthy Trays
I have written two other articles on Coca-Cola up to this point. I was so surprised at the positive reaction, I decided to add more. Please let me know if you like these!