Of all the “Low-level employee provides a simple yet brilliant innovation that increases the profits of a successful company many times over” legends, one legend about how Coca-Cola came to be served in bottles rather than solely dispensed from fountains is without question the best known:
Example: [de Vos, 1996]
Coke was first sold only at soda fountains. A man approached the executive of the company and told them that for $500 he would reveal the secret of untold corporate riches. His secret, after he pocketed the money, was “Bottle it!”
Akin to the “carbonated by mistake” legend, this tale postulates that at least some of Coca-Cola’s remarkable success was the result of dumb luck rather than intelligent business design. Just as the “accidental carbonation” chestnut hypothesizes that if it hadn’t been for an addlepated soda jerk the beverage would always have lacked fizz, this story about a stranger who fortuitously turned up with a million-dollar idea advances the notion that Coca-Cola wouldn’t otherwise have been vended in bottles.
While it is difficult to pin down precisely when the idea of selling Coke in bottled form was first kited, we can tell it occurred near the product’s 1885 debut thanks to one of the participant’s memories about a dispute over the notion. Sam Dobbs, nephew of Asa Candler (who bought up the rights to Coca-Cola in 1888), got himself in trouble with his uncle by secretly vending bottles of the soft drink syrup to entrepreneurs manning back-alley bottling machines.
But Candler’s objections were not based on a failure to comprehend the potential sales value of providing the buying public with the beverage in bottled fashion; rather, they sprang from then-reasonable concerns about unsanitary bottling conditions adulterating the drink and injuring the product’s standing. “There are too many folks [bottlers] who are not responsible, who care nothing about the reputation of what they put up, and I am afraid the name [of Coca-Cola] will be injured,” he said.
Ergo, legend to the contrary, Asa Candler (who was Coca-Cola back in those early days) gained the “Bottle it” advice not from a mysterious stranger who struck a hard bargain in exchange for the intelligence, but for free from his go-getter of a teenage nephew. Candler chose not to immediately implement the suggestion, though, which perhaps contributes to belief in the legend.
The fact that Coca-Cola was not widely available in bottled form until well after it was established as a fountain drink does not reflect, as legend would have it, the Coca-Cola Company’s lack of awareness of the potential market for bottled drinks, but instead was a product of Coca-Cola’s recognition that the bottling process at that time was notoriously difficult, expensive, and unreliable, and that the fast-growing company had neither the money nor the physical resources to be establishing and operating bottling plants of its own.
Yet with or without Candler’s blessing, Coca-Cola was indeed being sold in bottles by the mid-1890s. Collectors of the product’s memorabilia know to be on the lookout for the rare Hutchinson bottles the fledgling company used from that time to the early 1900s. (Between the discontinuation of the Hutchinson vessels and the introduction of the contour bottle in 1915, a variety of straight-sided bottles were used.) The stoppered Hutchinson bottles were exceedingly difficult to clean (in those days, bottles were washed and re-used rather than filled once and discarded when empty), an additional fact that serves to make Candler’s reluctance to bottle the product a bit more understandable.
Joe Biedenharn of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was one of the soda’s earliest bottlers. He went from peddling Coke syrup to druggists for the company to, in 1894, bottling and then selling the carbonated beverage itself. Another early bottler was the Valdosta Bottling Works of Valdosta, Georgia, which began putting up Coke in bottles in 1897.
The legend attached to how Coca-Cola came to be bottled is indeed an old one. In the 1934 film Imitation of Life, a bum whom Beatrice ‘Bea’ Pullman (Claudette Colbert) feeds a free breakfast of pancakes announces by way of negotiating another helping of food that he will tell Beatrice “in two words how to make a million dollars.” Before offering his simple-yet-brilliant suggestion about a way to transform Pullman from a mere café owner into a pancake mogul, he regales her with the tale of an unnamed fellow who once approached the president of Coca-Cola with a similar proposition, saying, “For $100,000, I’ll tell you how to make millions.” But of course the advice of the unnamed fellow was “Bottle it.”
The legend didn’t begin with that acclaimed film, though, because mention of it appears in a 1935 note penned by New Yorker editor Harold Ross. Ross was in the habit of typing out idea sheets (story suggestions) for potential “Talk of the Town” pieces, and his 23 September 1935 entry reads as follows:
There’s a legend that a man once went into the Coca-Cola offices and said he had an idea which would make millions for them and would reveal it on payment of $50,000. After a solemn agreement had been drawn up he gave them the idea in two words: “Bottle it.” I’ve heard this legend for years. Any truth in it? There are a lot of other legends of the kind that could be bunched with this one, if only to explode them all.
Notice that even in 1935 Ross referred to the story as a legend he’d been hearing for years, so while that note was dated a year after the release of Imitation of Life, the knowledge behind it predated the film. Ross’s note also evinced a surely modern version of the legend: In 1896 the Coca-Cola Company’s entire surplus amounted to less than $50,000 — to have thrown all that cash at a stranger in exchange for nothing more than the nebulous promise of a “great idea” would have been madness indeed.
It may never prove possible to isolate the origin of this well-traveled innovation tale, but we can say with great assurance that it entered the canon of popular lore long before the majority of our readers came into the world.