I started buying Coca-Cola® items like most of you -- I bought anything that had the Coca-Cola logo on it. At some point, though, you realize that you can’t buy EVERYTHING that says Coke® on it.
To try and limit your collection, you change your habits. Maybe you decide you won’t buy anything produced after the Dynamic Ribbon (the "Wave") was introduced (1970). Or you choose "new Coke" (1985) as your stopping point. Even with those distinctions, there are still a ton of early items out there. So you find your specialty. Many of us have been there, and it’s why we’re in the Collectors Club. You can be with others who understand these things.
When I started to narrow my collection, I found that my interest centered on items from the 1940s. I’m not sure why, but I found as I sorted out my collection, that’s what I was keeping. Sure, I’ve got lots of other items, but the 40s have always been really interesting to me.
When you think about our collections, most of the things we keep were never meant to last this long. The Coke items were to be given away, posted or hung on walls, displayed in windows or even left outside in the weather. They weren’t meant to be collected decades later. I like to think about the times these items were meant for. What was happening in the country when these items were produced? Who was the target audience for the sign, toy or advertising piece?
That’s why I find items produced around World War II so interesting. You get to see images of soldiers in Coke ads. You see a smiling woman stocking her icebox saying, "He’s coming home." Playing cards feature women serving their country. Servicemen are shown sharing Coca-Cola with their new friends and allies overseas. You really can’t get timelier or tug at the heartstrings better than this. You can think about the families left at home while husbands and fathers were at war.
I also found myself attracted to the Kay Display signs made during World War II. During the war, rationing limited materials for items like Coca-Cola signs, so the Kay Displays Company used innovative new materials to make some great signs. A mix of wood, Masonite and metal made these signs truly memorable -- and collectible. Keeping with the war themes, you’ll see festoons featuring ships and planes, and signs with small stars.
I didn’t realize how my focus on 1940s items would fit my family history. My father, Spencer, died in 1976, when I was 17. He was born in a very poor area of the South, and he served in World War II in the Army Air Force. I was in high school before he told me much about his service. I didn’t even know there was an Army Air Force!
Much has been written lately about the men and women who served during World War II. Almost everyone agrees that the common thread is the lack of discussion about what they did. They are a generation of proud Americans who were just doing what they could for their country, not wanting to been seen as heroes. That pretty much described my father. Every once in a while we’d get tidbits about his service, but never any real stories. I knew that he could fix or repair anything and that during the war he was asked to fix equipment. That was about the extent of my knowledge.
About two years ago my wife, daughter and I moved to a new home and asked my mother to move in with us. With this move came the consolidation of two families, and two Coke collections into one home. Needless to say, we filled up the new house quickly. We used this time to really clean up and go through everything. We found a box full of letters and information about my Dad and his service during World War II.
My Mom read all of her old letters – and wouldn’t let me near them. I understand; they were intended for her eyes only, and I’m not really sure that I want to see love letters between the two of them! While guarding the mushy stuff, she did share some of the military information. There were lots of photos of my Dad during the war, and there were photos of stars performing on a USO tour. I also found what has become the latest addition to my Coca-Cola collection.
In my years with the Collectors Club, I’ve written articles about how Coca-Cola was promised to our servicemen for 5 cents during WWII, how Coke plants were built overseas, and how wives took their husbands' jobs at Coca-Cola plants while their husbands were serving. And I’ve written about the letters servicemen wrote detailing their experiences with Coca-Cola and how great it was to enjoy a Coke during wartime. Little did I know that all of those times I could have been writing about my own father.
In one of my mom’s boxes was a personal gem for me as a Coca-Cola collector – a note about Coke from my father to my mother. The day I found and read the letter was exactly 61 years from the day it was written. When we talk about Coke signs that were not expected to last, I’m sure my father had no idea that his Coca-Cola collector son would read this letter 61 years later!
The letter was written in Paris, dated December 13, 1944. Here’s what he had to say...
Paris, France 12-13-44 "Well I just came back from the Coke bar. In case I haven't told you before, they did away with the beer parlor and put in a Coke bar. Boy but they sure taste good after going without them for so long. I had rather have the Cokes as the beer. I'll bet you were surprised to hear that, but it's the truth."
Now how could you ask for a more personal collectible? I’m having this letter framed along with a photo of my dad and an ad from the era. It will be the perfect combination of a personal family treasure and a favorite Coca-Cola collectible.
Bill Combs has been a Coca-Cola collector since 1986 and is the vice president and former president of The Coca-Cola Collectors Club.