You've probably never heard the name of Earl R. Dean. Or, for that matter, the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Ind. But there's a good chance that you've held their signature product in your hand. After all, 300 billion of them were produced in the century since its invention.
It's Cola-Cola—no, not the drink, but the bottle it comes in.
Variously known as the Hobble-skirt bottle or the Mae West bottle (but usually just the contour bottle), Coke's green-glass container is probably the most famous piece of packaging in American history. Celebrating its centennial this year, Coke's bottle has rolled into every corner of the culture: Warhol painted it, Eisenstaedt photographed it, and Time magazine put it on its cover.
"We all have our first memory of drinking from this bottle. It's part of our culture," says Coca-Cola's global design director Deklah Polansky. "I like to say that a logo belongs to a corporation but an icon belongs to people. It's the love of generations that's made this bottle what it is."
But it wasn't love that brought the Coke bottle into existence; it was desperation.
A popular fountain drink since its introduction in 1886, Coca-Cola had trouble keeping its brand consistent when it started bottling 13 years later. The secret formula might have been sacrosanct, but the bottles—produced by a thousand different plants—varied by color and shape. Worse, competitors like Koka-Nola were copying all of them. By 1915, Coke had had enough. Scooping up $500 from the company coffers, Coca-Cola issued the following brief: "We need a bottle which a person will recognize as a Cola-Cola bottle even when he feels it in the dark. The Coca-Cola bottle should be so shaped that, even if broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was."
Ten glass companies took up the challenge. The winner was Root Glass, whose designer Earl R. Dean had sketched out a bottle fluted and curved to resemble a cacao pod. Clever, distinctive and beautiful, the design has stayed more or less the same in the century since. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who lengthened the original 6.5-ounce bottle in 1955, called it the "perfect liquid wrapper."
And it still is. While Coca-Cola's bottles are more commonly made from aluminum and recyclable PET plastics these days, that fluted, wide-hipped profile remains a constant—a shape that nearly anyone can identify by sight, a container for the best-selling soft drink history that, inside and out, is nothing if not consistent. As Andy Warhol put it, "All the Cokes are the same, and all the Cokes are good."
This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.