Who Knew My Coca-Cola Addiction Could Be So Useful: Using Coke Bottles to Date Archaeological Sites
Dating archaeological sites that we discover is one of the most basic tasks that archaeologists perform. While we all must do it, dating archaeological assemblages is not always easy. Luckily, marketing and branding, a crucial part of our consumer world, helps to make dating historic sites a little easier. Every company needs a brand, something that makes them stand out among their competition and reminds the consumer that they are buying a quality product. A great deal of branding is done through material culture, creating visual cues that trigger people’s memories and make them want to buy your product. Like clothing lines, long-lived brands must change over time to keep up with both their competition and the current fashions and culture, leading to variation in the products of companies. This variation, when documented, can help us to date different deposits at archaeological sites. One great example is the Coke bottle. Here at Campus Archaeology, we occasionally come across Coke bottles in various forms. Depending on some particular characteristic of the bottle, we can give a general date to the materials found with that bottle.
Coca-Cola first made its appearance in 1886 as a soda fountain drink in downtown Atlanta, GA. Over the next number of years, Coca-Cola was only served by the glass at drinking fountains until around 1899, when the company signed its first bottling contract (Coca-Cola 2011). The earliest Coca-Cola bottles were Hutchinson style bottles, but were quickly followed by straight-sided bottles with crown tops in a number of different colors of glass. Dating to between 1900 and 1920, the dates of these straight-sided bottles can be narrowed even further based on the shape of the script and where the script is placed on the bottle. For example, straight sided Coke bottles with script in a diamond shape in the center of the bottle are dated to 1907-1912, while ones with a vertical arrow in the center date to between 1912 and 1916 (for more variations: www.antique bottles.com/coke/). During the time of the straight-sided Coke bottles, the Coca-Cola brand was expanding greatly. As such, competitors tried to take advantage of this brand by closely mimicking Coke branding strategies. In response, the Coca-Cola company had bottle manufacturers create a unique bottle type, one that had a distinct look and feel, which would forever be synonymous with the Coca-Cola brand: the contour (or hobbleskirt) bottle. Patented in 1915, the contour bottle went into production in 1916 and was subsequently sold all over the world (Coca-Cola 2011; Lockhart and Porter 2010).
Since the beginning of their production, Coca-Cola contour bottles have changed very little, as this bottle served as the hallmark of the Coca-Cola brand. While the bottle designs stayed relatively consistent, the patent for the bottle was renewed several times. Since the patent date or patent number was included on the bottles to prove that they were from true Coca-Cola distributors, these numbers can help narrow down the date range of when the bottle may have been made. For example, from 1917 to 1928, Coke bottles had the patent date of “NOV. 16 1915” on each bottle. When a different patent was acquired on Dec. 25th, 1923, the bottles eventually began to display this date. From 1928 to 1938, the so called “Christmas Cokes” (due to the Christmas patent date) were produced that possessed this second date. Other such markings are “PAT. D 105529” (1938-1951), “US PATENT OFFICE/MIN CONTENTS 6 FL OZ” (1951-1958), and “US PATENT OFFICE/ MIN CONTENTS 6 ½ FL OZ” (1958-1965) (Lockhart and Porter 2010; www.antiquebottle.com/coke/). Starting in 1960, Coke began selling their products in cans, followed by plastic bottles in 1978, marking the slow decline of the glass Coca-Cola contour bottle (Coca-Cola 2011; Coca-Cola Journey Staff 2017).
On campus, if we find a Coke bottle during excavation, we know that the deposit dates to around 1900 or younger. We can then use more specific details about the bottle to further narrow down the date range. For example, within the Brody/Emmons dump, an early trash disposal site for East Lansing, CAP recovered at least one Coke bottle. The presence of this bottle indicates that at the dump was being used sometime between 1900 and the present. Looking closer on the bottle, one sees a patent date of Dec. 25th, 1923. This date indicates that the bottle was an old “Christmas Coke” bottle, made and sold between 1928 and 1938; a date range that fits well with what we know about the use of this dump. Coke bottles, used in this way, serve as excellent diagnostic artifacts for more recent historic sites. But, as marketing never ceases, we must also be wary of recent reissues of old Coke bottles, which promise to confound our efforts in the future.
Author: Jeff Painter
Antique Bottle Collectors Haven
n.d. “Antique Coke Bottles.” Website. http://www.antiquebottles.com/coke/
2011 125 Years of Sharing Happiness: A Short History of the Coca-Cola Company.
Coca-Cola Journey Staff
2017 “Contour Bottle History.” Coca-Cola Website.
Lockhart, Bill, and Bill Porter
2010 “The Dating Game: Tracking the Hobble-Skirt Coca-Cola Bottle.” Bottles and