- Historic Sites
Seventy-one years ago, a designer working frantically to meet a deadline for the Coca-Cola Company produced a form that today is recognized on sight by 90 percent of the people on earth
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
However, Chapman S. Root, grandson of Dean’s old boss, and Owens-Illinois, which took over Root Glass, recognized Dean as designer in a commemorative booklet published in 1971 to accompany a limited-edition reproduction of the first bottle. John Zabowski had been requested by Root and Owens-Illinois Glass Container Division, of which he was advertising manager, to investigate the story of the bottle’s design. After interviewing a survivor of the Samuelson family and spending several hours with Dean, Zabowski felt convinced that Dean’s claim was authentic.
Until then, only Dean’s immediate circle knew of his role, because, his son Robert says, “He was not a man to put himself forward. At the end of his life, he wanted to set the record straight.” And in setting the record straight, Earl Dean pointed to Samuelson’s actual contribution during the initial brainstorming session—the question “What is Coca-Cola made of?”
Nobody knew. Still, the germ of an idea was growing: a bottle design could be based upon the soda’s ingredients, the coca leaf or the cola nut. But what did these plants look like? To find out, Root sent Dean and Edwards, the auditor, chauffeured in a big Peerless limousine, to the Terre Haute Emily Fairbanks Library. The librarian turned up little under coca or cola , but under cocoa in the 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica , they came upon a provocative illustration. In fact, Coca-Cola contains neither cocoa nor chocolate, but Dean and Edwards had found their inspiration.
“The pod was about the size of a cucumber,” said Dean, “with convolutions all around, like a cantaloupe. It had the pinch in there like a Coke bottle and a stem at the top like a squash. So I made a sketch of the whole thing.”
Back at the plant, Dean showed his rough drawing to Root. “I told Mr. Root that it could be transformed easily into a bottle. Up there at the top where it’s like a gourd, it would have a finish or ring where the cap goes on. He was very enthused and asked me if I could get it done so we could have a mold made before the fire went out in two days.”
The “fire” imposed an urgent deadline on Dean’s work. Union rules required that bottle-making operations stop from time to time to permit the repair of the tanks. One hundred and fifty tons of molten glass, like heavy molasses, were poured from each tank into a huge pit, allowing the tanks to cool off for safety inspections. Noon on the last working day of June was the deadline for the fire to go out at Root Glass. If the company was to enter the contest, Dean had to complete his sample bottle before then.
Dean carried his drawing instruments and notes home with him that night. He was not feeling well—“I was bilious and sick”—so he went right to bed. But he arose early the next morning and spread out his papers on the big, round dining table. “I worked on it until my mother got up at 6 o’clock and fixed my breakfast and set it on the other side of the table. So I changed seats and ate, then worked a little more. Then I grabbed everything and ran off to the shop to get the men started at 7 o’clock. I finished the drawing in my little office by the time Mr. Root arrived, about 9 or 9:30. He was very pleased with it.”
Now the pressure to complete the mold in time grew intense. “Back in the shop, I started the mold from the rough. I had the preliminaries made on the shaper and the surface grinder and the lathe, which bored a blank hole in the center of two halves of a cast iron mold. Then I worked the rest of the day without any stops until 2 o’clock in the morning, till I could see that could finish it in time for the factory to get samples made before the fire went out at noon the next day. That made exactly 22 hours straight I worked on it.
“The next morning I started on it again, because there was still a lot to do—cutting with hammer and chisel all those convolutions, lettering and panels. I got it out to the factory about 11:30. It took about twenty minutes to heat up the mold.…And we made just a few of the first Coca-Cola bottles in the last fifteen minutes before the fire went out.”
For the patent application, Dean had drawn both front and back views of the bottle. The attorney separated the drawing with Root’s long scissors, handing Dean the front design and sending the back to Washington. Dean’s sons, Norman and Robert, now own the drawing, as well as an actual bottle from the first run. The green glass is slightly flawed with bubbles where the mold did not heat up completely. The archives department of the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta owns the only other existing bottle, a gift from Alexander Samuelson’s son.
Chapman J. Root approved the prototype, securing his place in Coca-Cola history and reaping millions of dollars in royalties. A patent was issued on November 16,1915. At the next bottlers’ convention, in 1916, the Root bottle was chosen over all other entries and was on the market the same year. By 1920 the contour bottle was the standard for the company.