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The story of the Coca-Cola logo

It was May 8th, 1886, in Atlanta, Georgia, when Coca-Cola came to life. Local pharmacist Dr John Stith Pemberton created the syrup.

John Stith Pemberton, Coca-Cola inventor
John Stith Pemberton (1831–1888)

John carried a jug of his syrup down the street to Jacobs’ Pharmacy where it was mixed with carbonated water, deemed tasty, and sold from a soda fountain for five cents a glass.

To understand where the brand name came from we need to go back a little further, to the 1860s when John Pemberton created Coca Wine, an alcoholic drink “for fatigue of mind and body.”

Coca Wine ad

A prohibition law was enacted in Atlanta in 1886, persuading John to rename and rewrite the formula for his popular Coca Wine stimulant, sold at the time by most, if not all, of the city’s pharmacies.

John’s partner and bookkeeper, Frank Mason Robinson, suggested the Coca-Cola name, thinking that “the two Cs would look well in advertising.”

The first known use of the Coca-Cola logo was in an advertisement in the Atlanta Journal on May 29th, 1886. The logo was an all uppercase serif, and the ad invited people to try “the new and popular soda fountain drink, containing the properties of the wonderful Coca plant and the famous Cola nuts.”

First Coca-Cola ad, Atlanta journal, 1886

An average of nine drinks per day were sold during the first year.

Frank Robinson wanted the brand name to have a visual style of its own, so experimented with an elaborate Spencerian script, a form of penmanship that was characteristic of the time. There was unanimous consensus on the script logo among those working for the Pemberton company.

Coca-Cola’s is believed to be the first coupon ever offered in the US, first distributed in 1887 (although the “Trade Mark Registered” tag in the tail of the “C” shown above didn’t appear until a few years later).

John never realised the potential of the drink he created, and gradually sold portions of his business to various partners. Just before John’s death in 1888, he sold his remaining interest in Coca-Cola to Atlanta-born Asa G Candler, who proceeded to buy additional rights to gain complete control over the business.

Asa Griggs Candler, 1851–1929
Asa Griggs Candler (1851–1929)

On May 1st, 1889, Asa Candler published a full-page advertisement in The Atlanta Journal, proclaiming his wholesale and retail drug business as “sole proprietors of Coca-Cola… Delicious. Refreshing. Exhilarating. Invigorating.” Sole ownership, which Asa did not actually achieve until 1891, cost a total of $2,300.

An 1891 calendar (below) shows a version of the Coca-Cola logo at the top-right that only existed for a year. The logo at the top-left was for De-Lec-Ta-Lave — a mouthwash also owned by Asa Candler.

Coca-Cola advertising calendar, 1891

Early Coca-Cola logo

In March, 1892, Asa’s merchandising flair resulted in an almost ten-fold sales increase of the soft drink. He soon liquidated his pharmaceutical business and focused his full attention on Coca-Cola. Along with his brother John S Candler, John Pemberton’s former partner (and logo designer) Frank Robinson, and two other associates, Asa formed a Georgia corporation named The Coca-Cola Company. Initial capital was $100,000.

In 1894, in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Joseph A Biedenharn was so impressed by the growing demand for Coca-Cola at his soda fountain that he installed bottling machinery in the rear of his store and began to sell cases of the drink to farms and lumber camps up and down the Mississippi River. He was the first bottler of Coca-Cola.

By 1895 Coca-Cola was drunk in every state.

The first celebrity to be featured in Coca-Cola advertising was model and music hall singer, Hilda Clark (below). She was featured on calendars, serving trays, metal advertising signs, posters, bookmarks, note pads, and various ephemera from the late 1890s to 1904.

A glass of Coca-Cola was available for just 5¢ from 1886 all the way until 1959.

Coca-Cola brain tonic ad with Hilda Clark, 1890s
Hilda Clark and “The ideal brain tonic“ (1890s)

Shown below is the first ever magazine ad for Coca-Cola. The full-page spread featured Lillian Nordica and ran in Good Housekeeping and other leading magazines of the day. A promo coupon for a free drink was attached to the bottom of the ad. Nearly $43,000 worth of coupons were redeemed in 1905 — the equivalent of roughly $1,300,000 in 2021.

Coca-Cola ad, Lillian Nordica and coupon, 1905
Featuring opera singer Lillian Nordica (1905)
Vintage Coca-Cola poster, 1909
Coca-Cola poster ad (1909)

“Sometime today you’ll be about all in. Feel as if you’d like to toss up the whole thing and just rest — but you can’t. When that time comes snatch a moment from your work — seek the nearest soda fountain and get a glass of delicious and refreshing Coca-Cola. It will relieve your fatigue, cool you off comfortably, calm your jangled nerves, and quench the thirst.”

Coke bottle design chronology
Coke bottle design (1894–1975)

Straight-sided containers were used up until 1915, but as soft-drink competition intensified, so did imitation, and in early 1916 the Coca-Cola bottlers approved the unique contour bottle designed by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana.

Nicknamed the “hobbleskirt,” due to the resemblance of the skirt-style in 1910, the historic bottle was derived from the shape of a cocoa bean, elongated with distinct ribs.

Coca-Cola ad, hot dog, 1919
Coca-Cola Hot Dog! ad (1919)

In 1919, the Candler interests sold The Coca-Cola Company to Atlanta banker Ernest Woodruff and an investor group for $25 million. The business was reincorporated as a Delaware corporation, and 500,000 shares of its common stock were sold publicly for $40 per share.

Coca-Cola red button ad, 1930s
The red disc era (from 1930s)

The logo within a red circle began appearing in the early 1930s. It’s been widely used through the decades and in more recent years.

In 1945 “Coke” was registered as a trademark with the USPTO.

Coca-Cola Coke ad, 1947
Coca-Cola “Coke” ad (1947)

An arched “fishtail” surround could be seen on signage and vending machines for a few years in the late 50s and early 60s, but it was dropped in favour of a return to the earlier red circle.

Coke Santa and terrier ad, 1961
Coke Santa and terrier (1961)

In 1969 the “Arden Square” logo was unveiled. In a red box, the Coca-Cola script was underlined with a white “wave” or “dynamic ribbon device” that’s still used today.

Coca-Cola logo Arden Square
The “Arden Square” (introduced in 1969)
Coca-Cola Arden Square McDonald’s ad, 1972
The “Arden Square” with McDonald’s (1972)

By 2004 The Coca-Cola Company owned nearly 400 brands in almost every country, with seventy percent of income coming from outside the US. At the time of writing, the company has 2,061 trademark applications, including a trademark for the now-familiar bottle shape — a very rare option for packaging.

Today, Frank Robinson’s elaborate handwritten design is one of the most recognisable logos in the world.

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