‘New Coke’ is dead.
But you can still get ‘Coke Classic’ in convenience-store fridges the world over. And the classic Coke “contour” bottle is still around, in modern incarnations, as well. It’s the bottle design introduced by the company one hundred years ago — the patent was dated November 16, 1915.
The contour bottle has slim, elegant curves, and vertical grooves inspired by illustrations the industrial designers at the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana, found in a reference book.
Since then, the bottle has helped make Coke a global behemoth; it’s helped make artists like Andy Warhol even more famous; and it’s helped establish American preeminence in industrial and consumer-product design.
British design critic Stephen Bayley put on the first exhibition of Coke-related art and design at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1986. He’s co-author of a glossy coffee-table book about the iconic brand and bottle.
“I grew up with Coke — for me, that was the taste of pleasure,” said Bayley. “Get access to Coke and you get access to that glorious American dream world.”
The 1915 bottle was invented in a contest Coke put on for glass-makers. The company wanted to distinguish its packaging from copycat cola-makers who were cutting into its business. Coke’s board issued this challenge, according to a history posted on the Coca-Cola company’s website, to develop: “a bottle so distinct that you would recognize if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.”
Bayley said of the resulting contour bottle: “It’s a masterpiece of American vernacular design. Whimsical, intuitive. The shape has an erotic suggestion about it. Functionally it works — you can hold it in your hand very easily.”
The introduction of the new bottle also roughly coincided with mass-industrial production, said Barbara Floyd, director of special collections at the Canaday Center at the University of Toledo. Owens-Illinois, a Toledo company, bought the Root Glass Company in 1932 and took over production of the contour bottles.
“Every bottle was exactly the same,” said Floyd. “Beverage companies that were once locally owned and distributed, were able to become national companies.”
In Coke’s case, global commercial domination followed.