Coca-Cola® calendars are among the oldest collectible items produced by the Company, dating as far back as 1891. Collectors cherish the early calendars not only because they can be extremely rare but also because they are beautifully made and historically informative.
Each calendar provides an enlightening vignette from the year it documents, always in the popular artistic style of the time. From its earliest days, Coca-Cola has been the quintessential American lifestyle product and its advertising artwork has captured the flavor of life in any given year for more than a century.
One of our earliest calendars tells us that tennis was popular in the late 19th Century. In the 1891 calendar, a young woman dressed in an elaborate dress and frilly hat cradles an early wooden tennis racket in her arms. Petretti's Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide (11th Edition) values this calendar at $18,000. Tennis also was the sport du jour in a 1920s calendar. Other sports appear in calendars over the years as the Company's artists captured popular trends of the day. Young women ice skaters appeared in calendars in the 1940s and 1950s, and a 1947 calendar features a woman holding skis with a snowy slope in the background.
The background scenes serve a documentary role in the calendars. A 1919 calendar subtly informs us that World War I had just concluded by showing us military figures in the background and biplanes in the sky. Petretti's guide values it at $6,500. Three years later, in 1922, a similar calendar shows a young woman in a pink dress and matching hat with a baseball game going on behind her.
In the 1930s, during the Depression, famous artists captured the innocence of a simpler time with their portrayals of barefoot boys out fishing with their dogs. As the nation moved into World War II, a calendar portrays a military nurse holding a Coca-Cola bottle, with the pyramids of Egypt in the background. The calendar art records clothing styles and cultural trends, from flappers in the 1920s, to the more demure styles of the 1930s, to a military motif in the 1940s, to rock-and-rollers in the 1960s. As the nostalgia craze caught hold in the 1970s, the Company issued replicas of calendars from the early part of the century.
Originally sold to bottlers for a nickel or less, calendars can sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars today. They can be difficult to collect because they are made of paper and often are discarded at the end of the year. The earliest calendars were produced only in the thousands, not the tens of thousands, as were later pieces.
The first two celebrities to be featured in Coca-Cola materials were singers who graced calendars around the beginning of the 20th Century. The first was a popular singer named Hilda Clark. Her likeness was used in Coca-Cola advertising from 1899 to 1904, on serving trays, metal signs, notepads and posters, in addition to calendars. Historians and collectors Bill Bateman and Randy Schaeffer provided an account of Clark's life in a 1988 article from The Coca-Cola Collectors News. Their research indicated that Clark appeared in operettas in New York and then joined the Bostonians, a musical touring company. She married a prominent banker in 1903 and continued to sing in churches in New York City. Clark was described in Famous Prima Donnas as having "more than ordinary physical attractiveness. She is a blonde of prettily irregular features ... divinely tall and most divinely fair." The artwork of Clark used on Coca-Cola advertising was a colorized version of a black and white photograph of the soprano at the height of her career.
Clark was followed in Coca-Cola advertising by an even more widely recognized personality of the time, Lillian Nordica. She was one of the first American sopranos to become a success in Europe. During 11 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera, she sang nearly 200 performances in 19 different roles. Nordica died in 1914 of exposure following a shipwreck while returning from an Australian tour. Her regal appearance graced calendars, magazine advertisements and serving trays.
Clark and Nordica appear on other collectible items besides calendars and serving trays, including bookmarks and sampling coupons that can be worth hundreds of dollars today.
Most of the other models for the early calendars did not have their names publicized. But a creative person in advertising decided some of the women featured on Coca-Cola calendars should have names, so he made them up! "Betty," "Constance" and "Elaine" were born into our Company's advertising history. The reason they got names and others didn't is lost to history.
Collectors have found remarkable variances in some early calendars. For instance, some calendars from the teens have two versions, one in which a model is shown with a fountain glass and another with a bottle instead of the glass. A 1917 calendar with a baseball game in the background shows a model seated at a small table with a straight-sided bottle with straw in one version, while she holds a fountain glass of Coca-Cola. Another version of the calendar replaces the bottle with a second fountain glass.
A 1919 calendar with a military background shows a model simply holding a contour bottle in one version and a fountain glass in a second. Petretti's guide notes that the 1919 poster has always been in great demand because of its colorful artwork. In top condition, it can be worth $6,500 with either bottle or glass.
The artist Hamilton King, who was prominent for his use of colors at the turn of the century, illustrated the beautiful "Coca-Cola girls" for calendars from 1910 to 1913. His work also appears on serving trays. Unlike the many anonymous artists who produced the calendars in the early years, King signed his artwork for the Company - the only artist to get his name on his works until the 1930s. A large version of a King calendar from 1912 is valued at $8,000 in Petretti's guide, which notes that his calendar artwork was also used on trolley car signs from 1910 to 1913.
By the teens, movie stars of the silent screen replaced singers as the new heroes in the American popular pantheon. As Americans headed to this new medium of entertainment in droves, Coca-Cola joined them. Silent film stars soon graced our calendars and other promotional pieces. Marion Davies, June Caprice and Pearl White were depicted on calendars holding fountain glasses. Coca-Cola collectors seeking these calendars are likely to encounter competition from collectors of movie-star memorabilia. Petretti's guide lists a June Caprice distributor calendar as a common piece with a price of $500, while a 1919 calendar of Davies lists for $5,000.
The anonymous artwork in the teens and '20s drives much of the interest in collecting the early Coca-Cola calendars. The use of color in many of the calendars is extraordinarily sophisticated, with rich creams and subtle pinks and greens. To see these calendars in person is to take a trip back in time to a classic type of work that simply isn't seen today. Many of the artists who worked on the calendars were gifted European craftsmen who brought their tradition to America and captured the fashions of the Great Gatsby era. Their work transcends commercial illustration and moves into the rarified territory of fine art.
The Golden Age
In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, during the Golden Age of American illustrative art, the Company worked with many gifted artists to produce its colorful advertisements. In the late 1950s, we began moving away from illustrations and toward photography in our calendars. While some collectors prefer to concentrate on the illustrated works, the calendars featuring photography also are fine collectibles and can be the basis for a beginner's collection.
Calendars are produced each year; they remain an element of the Company's advertising; and they continue to capture the lifestyles of the times. Though the technology featured in the calendars has changed, the recent calendars offer an inexpensive way to obtain a nice collection that fits together in chronological order.
Before beginning to collect calendars, any enthusiast should study existing catalogues and guides to become aware of the importance of such details as having the calendar pad still attached to the artwork. Collectors also should be aware of the sizes and colors of the original articles to avoid buying counterfeit items or calendars that have been trimmed from their original size. Because of their popularity, calendars can be among the most expensive and competitive Coca-Cola collectibles to pursue.
Phil Mooney is the director of the Archives Department.
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