For the past century, Coca-Cola has been at the forefront of advertising. As Timothy de Waal Malefyt, professor of marketing at Fordham University, notes, Coca-Cola has long had “a strong cultural influence in shaping Western traditions” — a good deal of its influence coming from its branding. For example, close your eyes and picture Santa Claus. You can probably thank a Coke ad for the image you just conjured up.
There’s a fascinating piece of Coca-Cola advertising history that, while not as memorable as its Christmas campaigns, certainly predates them, and is arguably just as vital to its legacy: Clocks.
In the 1890s, Coca-Cola started advertising on clocks, which was a pretty common way for businesses to advertise at the turn of the century. At the beginning of the 19th century, clocks were rare in America — they were expensive, and had to be imported from England or France. But by the beginning of the 20th century, they were fairly common, and most were manufactured by about a dozen American companies.
General consensus holds that Coca-Cola first turned to Edward Baird to make its clocks. In his youth, Baird worked for The Torrey Co. making boxes for The Seth Thomas Clock Co., a famous American clockmaker. Baird quickly became obsessed with the clock-making industry and opened his own business in Montreal in 1888, according to Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide. Two years later, Baird moved his company to Plattsburgh, N.Y., which is where he started making clocks for Coca-Cola.
At first, notes Petretti, Baird produced two kinds of clocks for the company: a figure-eight, and a gallery. The figure-eight design featured two loops on top of each other. The gallery clock was similar to the round clock you see in most homes today. Both were spring-loaded 8-day clocks — you wound them once a week, but you had a grace day in case you forgot — and both used Seth Thomas movements.
Notably, the original Baird clocks were made of papier-mâché, which allowed the advertising letters to be molded into it. According to Petretti, the molds for the clocks didn’t last long, which explains why there are so many different early styles of clock. But variety was what Coca Cola wanted, writes Petretti, and with every new clock order it filed, the company changed styles and slogans.
Clocks helped bring American modernism to an increasingly industrial age, where, says Malefyt, “virtually every aspect of American life was scheduled and seemed to prosper with stepped-up and measured tempos.” In fact, standard time zones were instituted in the US and Canada just ten years before Coca Cola started advertising on clocks. It was fitting, then, for the company to brand itself in this Modern American way. Looking at a clock told you when it was time for work, for school, for exercise — and for a Coke!
The original Coke clocks cost about $2.75 to make, according to Collector’s Weekly, which was a fairly expensive price to pay for one fixed ad. But the company realized that it was money well spent, says Ray DeLuca, a knowledgeable Georgia-based antiques dealer specializing in Coca Cola.
Clock ads had a shelf life that posters and other discarded items didn’t, DeLuca says. Businesses didn’t throw clocks away because were functional. Even later commercials, compelling as they were, only held your attention for a few seconds at a time. But a clock on the shelf of your grocery store or on the wall of your business — that was the kind of advertising opportunity brands dreamed of.
Baird again moved his company in 1896, this time to Chicago, where he began making clocks of tin and wood. Petretti says he didn’t make many of these, though, and for whatever reason, at the turn of the century, Coca-Cola started using clocks designed by the E.N. Welch Co. These were octagonal schoolhouse regulator clocks, and each was outfitted with a gorgeous paper Coca-Cola advertisement found inside a door, behind the pendulum. Notably, the value of one of these clocks without that paper ad is about $5,000 less than one with it.
The company again changed clockmakers in 1903, but it was in 1910 that Coca-Cola really reached a stride. For the next 30 years, the Gilbert Clock Co. of Winstead, Conn. produced two-panel regulators which increasingly came to replace the archaic 8-day clocks. These really took off, suggests Petretti, because “they seemed to run forever with very little care.”
See a gallery of vintage Coca-Cola clocks:
At first, Coke clocks were given only to businesses. But the company did experiment with giving them out for use at home. From about 1905 until 1920, the company produced ornate desk clocks which boasted slogans like, “Drink Coca-Cola in bottles,” which served as a reminder to folks sitting at home that they were now able to enjoy their favorite soft drink whenever they wanted it.
Coca-Cola clocks were also given to schools, says DeLuca. “I guess some schools didn’t have the money to get them. Back then, Coke was giving clocks to everyone.”
In the 1930s, Coca Cola made the switch to electric clocks, which, as Collectors Weekly points out, were cheaper and more reliable than pendulum ones. The company continued to produce clocks on a very large scale, especially post-WWII, when advertising clocks really took off. High demands meant the increasing phasing out of wood and metal, until most clocks manufactured in the 1950s were mostly made of plastic. Technological advances allowed the company to create clocks with neon illumination, which was very popular in the late 1960s into the 1970s.
DeLuca says people started becoming interested in the old clocks in the late 1980s. Some of the original clocks are worth thousands of dollars, especially the Bairds. According to Jerry Maltz, author of Baird Advertising Clocks, one of the most valuable Baird Coca-Cola clocks sold for $25,000 about 25 years ago.
Assessing the value of Coca Cola clocks can be tricky. Unlike other antiques, the clocks aren’t typically dated, which means collectors have to rely on things like slogan verbiage and clock materials to determine its approximate age.
And, as with much of the industry, fake clocks are ubiquitous. “I ain’t gonna tell you about half the emails I sent to people saying: ‘You’re a rip-off artist!’” says DeLuca. He claims he’s so good at determining the ages of Coke clocks that at every convention he goes to, interested buyers approach him and ask him to determine if the clocks they want to buy are real or not.
Part of the problem is that fixing the original clocks is nearly impossible. Clockmakers are practically extinct, DeLuca says. “They used to be in every town, but they’re not there anymore,” he adds. “Those people died off, and their kids don’t want to do the business.”
Anyone fortunate enough to chance upon an original clock from the turn of the century should keep it safe. And for the majority of us who are interested in the clocks but don’t have the kind of good fortune to own them, a quick scroll through Coke’s digital archives might be satisfying in its own way.
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