Welcome to the
Painted Soda Bottles Collectors Association
By David Meinz
The year was 1938. FDR was president. Big bands were the rage and millions were out of work. Times were tough. Many could not even afford the 25-cent admission to see the latest flick from Hollywood.
Most, however, could now and then come up with at least a nickel for a cold soda pop. In the last couple of years bottlers had developed a new way of packaging their product. Less and less was seen of the embossed bottle and even the glued-on paper label was giving way to a new development of technology. The applied colored label (ACL) bottle, today’s collectors also refer to them as “painted–label,” allowed for a great variety in label design, easier product identification, and more economy for the bottler. While this new technology had been around for about three years, it was only now that the new bottles were showing up on a larger scale. Some of the earliest were basically the embossed style with a very small painted-label replacing the embossed name. But in the spirit of good ol’ Yankee competition, the race was now on to see who could come up with the best colors and the catchiest label designs to entice those hard-earned nickels away from a thirsty America.
And what designs they were! Anything and everything was potential material for pushing soda. The Cleopatra of the cigar box became the inspiration of a St. Louis bottler to create ”Cleo Cola.” Cowboys, Indians, airplanes, eagles, pretty women, clowns, horses, and even the Statue of Liberty became the hallmark for thousands of bottling companies sprinkled across the country. While bottlers themselves had little intention other than to sell more soda, they inadvertently were creating a future collectible and a documentary of their own time.
For example, many of the bottles of the 1930s and early ‘40s promoted the fact that they contained lithia, today a prescription-only medication used for manic-depression. That’s probably why people were so happy back then! Other sodas boasted that they were ”enriched with dextrose;” today’s translation: sugar. The classic Cleo Cola bottle of the late 1930s caused quite a stir when it first came out. Such a scantily clad woman was a little too much for many members of respectable society to tolerate. Public opinion actually resulted in the removal of Cleo’s belly button on later runs of the bottle! After World War II, a red, white, and blue label depicting a saluting soldier urged Americans to drink ”All-American.” A California bottler got on the bandwagon, too, with Victory Root Beer. As the years went by, pictures of propeller airplanes on 1940s labels eventually gave way to jets and themes of outer space. Fortunately, since a large number of the bottles are dated on the bottom, and often give the bottle manufacturer and the bottling company name and location, collecting painted-label sodas is an easy and enjoyable way to document some colorful years of our American culture.
Many might consider the returnable soda bottle a contemporary item. But take a look at today’s supermarket. What you see is shelves and shelves of two-liter plastic bottles and multi-packs of cans. And while you might find some single serving glass soda bottles in a nod to nostalgia, their labels are often just adhered with paper or plastic stickers; a poor attempt to mimic the original. And brands? Basically Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, Dr Pepper and some kind of orange and root beer. Compare today’s throw-away society with the literally thousands and thousands of independent bottlers that thrived in large and small towns across America in the 1930s to the 1960s. What you discover is that the soda business, and the soda bottle, has gone through some dramatic changes.
Today, many of the higher priced items in the general bottle collecting hobby have been dug from old dumps and privies. But you can’t dig an ACL. In the great majority of cases, soil conditions are such that the painted label is destroyed or marred within a very short time. Yes, you can dig the bottle, but it’s the label that makes it a collectible. Dug painted-label bottles dating from as late as the 1960s are already often beyond recognition. Nice ACL’s don’t come from the ground, they come from underneath old general stores, from inside old bottling companies that have been closed for forty years, from flea markets, and from just about anywhere where people at one time enjoyed that liquid refreshment called soda pop.
Some bottle dealers may say that these sort of bottles aren’t worth the bother. While you occasionally may find a common bottle at a flea market for a dollar or two, a nice painted label with a picture of some kind can easily go for $50-$100. Put it in the rarer amber glass and now you double the price. Since many bottles were made in small towns, a number of ACL’s that turn up are often one-of-a-kind examples, a real find for any collector. In many cases, the demand for a particular bottle far outweighs the supply. Prices are reflecting that trend. Several of the more scarce bottles have recently sold for over a thousand dollars! Not bad for an empty soda bottle.
When I bought my first ACL in 1979, I had no idea that the collection would eventually take up so much of my time, my home, and my money. Collecting bottles has always been a popular hobby, but most would agree that few get as excited, or zealous, as those of us who collect ACL sodas. With the advent of Ebay, Facebook, and the general internet, the interest in painted-label sodas has never been higher.
When we get together at bottle shows, most of us are amazed at how many previously unknown labels continue to turn up. Having been associated with the hobby for over forty years, I still regularly see brands that are new to me. When collectors speculate on how many possible brand names could’ve been created in the 1930s through the 1960s, the answer has to be well over 15,000. And that’s one of the pleasures of the hobby; it continues to be fascinating. Whether you’ve just started, or you’ve been collecting for years, there’s always the very real possibility that you’ll find some new treasure to add to your collection soon.
These tiny time capsules of America reflect a period of our history when life was simpler, and when soda was just five cents. No wonder more and more collectors are asking, do you have any “painted-label sodas” for sale?”
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