Growing up in Carrollton, Ga., Tim McClain developed an eye for
the hand-painted Coca-Cola signs decorating old drugstores, gas stations, barns
and other buildings. Years later, when he was starting out as a fashion
photographer in New York, he’d often use vintage Coke murals as backdrops for
“The more rustic and weathered, the better,” he recalls via
phone from his studio about an hour outside Atlanta. “Seeing that faint red
paint through the barnwood was a stamp of our history. I loved what it stood
Yet while the rugged, sun-dappled signs carried a certain
artistic quality, they were a clear indication that the once-ubiquitous advertisements
were quickly becoming an endangered species. Many were literally fading away with age,
and others were disappearing as old buildings were torn down to bring sleepy
Southern towns into the 21st century.
That’s why, upon returning home to Carrollton in the early-‘90s, McClain decided to capture as many vintage Coca-Cola signs as possible on film.
“I knew they wouldn’t be around much longer, so I wanted to preserve them,” he says.
He and his wife took out a map and outlined the secondary highways and old country roads running alongside major interstates in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and the Carolinas. Over the course of about nine months in 1995, they hit the road on the weekends in search of Coca-Cola signs and the stories behind them. Working with limited navigation resources and research – this was before the days of GPS and the Internet – they were lucky to find two signs per trip.
“You never knew what the next mile would bring,” he says. “We had to quickly figure out where to go and where not to go.”
They interviewed people they met along the way, including an elderly man named Jack Ashmore in Carrollton. As a kid in school, Ashmore would prop up his geography textbook on his desk so his teacher couldn’t see him drawing. In the 1930s, he turned his passion into his profession, landing a job painting Coca-Cola signs in surrounding towns. Coke sent him detailed sketches to recreate on the sides of buildings.
“He couldn’t remember how many he painted,” McClain says.
Ashmore suggested several signs to track down, but most of the ones they ended up shooting were discovered by chance.
“On one particularly cold winter night, I remember pulling into a small town called Newland, North Carolina,” McClain recalls. “It was pitch-black dark and snow was on the ground. We looked up and saw this beautiful mural of a main painting a Coca-Cola sign. The only reason we saw it was because right when we parked, our headlights hit the brick wall.”
Nearly 40 of the images they captured were published in 1996 in a pocket-sized paperback book titled Coca-Cola Dreaming. The black-and-white collection, which was sold at traditional and online bookstores and the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, is no longer in print.
McClain, now 45, has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. Today he dedicates much of his time to portraits and weddings, and to creating high-quality giclée reproductions of Coca-Cola paintings by Georgia artist Steve Penley.
Throughout the years, he has received countless photos and letters from fans who bought his book and share his passion for Coca-Cola nostalgia.
“I’m always on the lookout for those great signs,” he concludes,
“because you just don’t see stuff like that anymore.”
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