The collectibles are everywhere.

The jubilant faces that came to define happiness-in-a-Coke fill mid-century ads. Signs from Labor Day celebrations in the 1940s encourage Americans to “work refreshed” by pausing for an ice-cold Coke on the job. Inside glass display cases, miniature six packs of Coke bottles, matchbox-sized delivery trucks, and Coca-Cola cufflinks are displayed with museum-like precision on tiny shelves.

Only a few rooms of Bill Combs’ Maryland home are off limits to Coke collectibles. What started in 1976 as a quest for an ice box has grown into one of the finest and most extensive private collections of Coca-Cola memorabilia in the United States. By his own appraisal, Combs estimates he currently has more than 5,000 pieces throughout his home.

“Do some people think we’re absolutely insane? Of course,” Combs said with a chuckle. But as he notes, there are groups that collect barbed wire, too. “It’s what people like. It’s what they enjoy. Collecting becomes something very personal.”

Combs is not just any collector. He’s the current vice president and former president of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, having been involved with the group since 1986. He got his unofficial start as a collector a decade earlier, as a teenager who was looking for some trendy items to decorate his family’s basement.

“I always thought it would be cool to have a Coke machine,” Combs said. In 1976, he and his then-girlfriend found a 1930s-era Westinghouse Coca-Cola cooler through a newspaper ad. The machines circulated cold water to keep drinks cool.

The seller threw in a cardboard Coca-Cola sign, and Combs and his girlfriend took the pair of items for $75. Combs said it was quite a deal – the ice box alone had been advertised for a few hundred dollars elsewhere.

“I put up the sign. My wife found a thermometer, we started going to yard sales,” Combs said. “It started there and it snowballed.”



Collection

Items Reveal Global Travels, History

On walls and shelves throughout his home, Combs packs a world-class collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia. Some items date back more than a century. A federal government job took him to Africa, Asia and Latin America during his career. Along the way, he acquired Coca-Cola clocks, calendars, trays and miniature pieces from places as diverse as Morocco, Thailand and Venezuela.

Combs relishes the stories that explain where he acquired the pieces. He also delights in the social and cultural history that accompanies them. Coke advertisements featured the first African-American families in the 1950s. Fashion-infused campaigns featured pop icons like Raquel Welch in the 1960s. The major events of a century can be traced through Coca-Cola memorabilia, he said.

The rarest piece is an 1899 calendar featuring Hilda Clark. The music hall performer was featured on multiple Coca-Cola items, becoming one of the first celebrities to endorse the brand. For context, if the singer Taylor Swift is known for pitching Diet Coke today, Clark would have had the same renown in popular culture during Coke’s early days, Combs said.

A substantial portion of Combs’ collection centers on World War II-era Coke memorabilia. Images of ships and fighter planes serve as a reminder of the global conflict, and the signs themselves reflect the austerity of the era. Many signs during the period were made of wood and Masonite, materials that were in frequent use in commercial displays as tin and metal were being rationed for the war effort.

One part of Combs’ wartime collection is highly personal and on display at the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta, amid the public collection of World War II-era promotional ads and memorabilia. A black-and-white photograph of Combs’ late father hangs alongside a letter to Combs’ mother. Private Spencer Combs served in the U.S. Army Air Forces and penned the letter in Paris, sharing his excitement over having a familiar taste from home.

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,” the late Combs wrote to his future wife Peggy Koch in the letter, dated Dec. 13, 1944.

Combs found the letter exactly 61 years after the day it was written. He sent the letter to Coca-Cola archives to be displayed in the World War II exhibit. “It’s a love letter to women. They see how sweet it is,” Combs said.



Bill Combs Collector

Learning As You Collect

Starting off as a Coca-Cola collector doesn’t mean you have to break the bank, Combs said. Some items can be picked up for a dollar. Others are substantially pricier at auctions or through private sales.

Combs’ fundamental advice: buy what you like. Some people prefer trains. Others like bottle caps. As a novice collector, Combs once bought an entire lot of Coca-Cola items through an estate auction, only to find that many of the pieces were of little to no value. “More experienced collectors would have passed on those items,” he said.

Combs has picked up items on eBay. He’s attended the famed Morphy Auctions events in Pennsylvania. And he’s picked up pieces at conventions of the Coca-Cola Collectors Club, which is independent from the company but has a license to use the company’s logo and trademarks.

Coca-Cola archivist Ted Ryan calls Combs an “outstanding” collector, adding that Combs likely has the world’s best collection of rare wooden Kay Displays signs made during the war. For serious collectors, items “have to have some display value,” Ryan said, before they’re considered for inclusion in an exhibit, such as Combs’ late father’s letter.

Combs and his family use museum-quality framing to display the rarest pieces. Delicate items are kept out of direct sunlight. He doesn’t use any chemicals to clean the clocks, trays, model delivery trucks and mini soda fountains that fill the family room, dining room, kitchen and other parts of his home.

The collection is modest compared to years past. Combs says he’s had up to 1,000 Coke bottles – arguably one of the most common collector items – but now only has a couple hundred. And at some 5,000 total items, the inventory is noticeably pared down, he says.

Still, there are items to be had. On the morning of this interview, Combs was awaiting the delivery of a set of personalized bottles he’d ordered as part of the wildly popular “Share a Coke” campaign.