Coca Cola bottles explain archaeology

Think over your own lifetime and select a product that has been around at least as long as you.  How has that product’s marketing and appearance changed over time?  Can you recall when it shifted its appearance?  (Many folks will, for example, recall when Pepsi changed its look in very recent history, perhaps to capitalize on Mr. Obama’s campaign iconography coming off his first inauguration or perhaps as a simple coincidence.)  Branding and rebranding may teach us something about how archaeologists date their finds in the field.

S-S 1900-1905 comparison

Straight-Sided (S-S) Coca Cola bottles from c. 1905-1910
Source: “Antique Coke Bottles” –

Dr. Lawrence E. Stager is a Harvard professor and a Biblical archaeologist.  I recently viewed his discussions about archaeology and Biblical archaeology specifically in Biblical Archaeology: From the Ground DOWN for my History 101 unit on the ancient Hebrews (a favorite lesson of mine that not only builds nicely on our previous weeks’ discussions about Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Hittites, and archaeology as a source of knowledge, but also stimulates great discussion and debate about texts and oral history).  In it, he at one point is explaining the concept of pottery typologies that are used to date the differing strata of the tells they dig in the Near East (a tell is a mound or hill that has developed because succeeding levels of a city were built upon each other following natural or man-made destruction, reconstructions, redevelopment, etc.) wherein each of the strata represents a (roughly) different time, epoch or event layer of the city’s or neighborhood’s history.

S-S Arrow logo bottles manufactured primarily in  TN and KY from 1912-1916Source: "Antique Coke Bottles" -

S-S Arrow logo bottles manufactured primarily in TN and KY from 1912-16 (L), and exclusively in Jackson, TN from 1912-14 (R)
Source: “Antique Coke Bottles” –

Stager explains that pottery types (hence the term typology) went through phases of popularity that give scholars confidence in dating the individual sherds that are left behind.  One of the best sources for archaeologists seeking the lost material culture at dig site is the midden or garbage dump.  Here, the various broken tools, accessories, and other materials can be found in one place.  Stager explained that broken sherds can provide enough material evidence to suggest the time period when the pottery was in fashion: particularly the handles and lips of pottery pieces if those are available, but also the designs used to decorate pots which can nail down both culture and time.

The "new" Hobbleskirt design, this one being a rare example from 1915, featuring blue glass on top and green glass on the bottom

The “new” Hobbleskirt design, this one being a rare example from 1915, featuring blue glass on top and green glass on the bottom.
Source: “Antique Coke Bottles” –

To explain this process he brought up the design of the Coca Cola bottle in his own lifetime, during which he drank from glass bottles with the brand appearing on the side of the bottle in raised glass, the glass bottle with a painted or printed label on top of the glass surface, and finally the plastic bottle.  These different motifs are traceable to the exact years in which they were manufactured.

"Dec. 25 1923" (called the "Christmas Cokes") were produced from 1928 to 1938.  You can identify them from later reproductions by looking at the base--Can you spot the reproduction in the shot?

“Dec. 25 1923” (called the “Christmas Cokes”) were produced from 1928 to 1938. You can identify them from later reproductions by looking at the base–Can you spot the reproduction in the shot?
Source: “Antique Coke Bottles” –

When Coca Cola was originally produced it was at the soda fountain in the latter years of the 19th century and served in glasses (and the original recipe included cocaine–hence its value as a medicinal product, if a highly addictive one).  Eventually, to protect the brand against pretenders, the Coca Cola company adopted the contoured bottle between 1905-1908, and that it attempts to maintain even in today’s plastic bottles, also know as the “hobbleskirt” design.


Coca Cola bottles manufactured in New York in the 1940s
Source: eBay sale

In the early days, branding was more fluid and it is more challenging to date some of these early bottles without some reference–many collectors’ sites exist to aid this process of differentiation; if it is of interest to you, see links below this post.  The bottle variations from the early part of the 20th century not only fluctuate greatly over a comparatively small snap shot of time, they deviate from each other regionally, as well.  Savvy collectors have also learned how to identify fakes made by irradiating clear glass bottles in an attempt to create the classic amber–deep purple Coca Cola bottles, for example, are fakes of this type.  While they are not typically digging these specimens up, they are employing the same basic approach the archaeologists have developed for cultures that predate patents and trademark laws!

More Information:

The Dating Game: Tracking the Hobble-skirt Coca Cola Bottle (.pdf)

Antique Coke Bottle – This site also shares related links, though some are dead.

Coca Cola History – Site produced by The Coca Cola Company

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

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