News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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June 5, 2010

Created in Terre Haute, history of iconic Coca-Cola bottle clouded

TERRE HAUTE — The world knows Coca-Cola by its bottle.

The contour container of “The Real Thing” is unmistakable, the most famous product package in history. People even can recognize it by touch in the dark.

Ironically, the real story of its creation has been clouded for decades by “myths, misconceptions, inconsistencies and contradictions,” as Seattle-based author Norman L. Dean writes. The record is set straight, he said, in his new book, “The Man Behind the Bottle: The Origin and History of the Classic Contour Coca-Cola Bottle as Told by the Son of its Creator.”

Norman L. Dean wants the planet to know this about his late father: Earl R. Dean designed the iconic Coca-Cola bottle in June 1915. Period.

History books spread the credit to four guys working at the Root Glass Co. in Terre Haute in the early 1900s. The U.S. Patent Office lists plant superintendent Alexander Samuelson as its official inventor. But the exhaustive research by Norman Dean, methodically laid out in “The Man Behind the Bottle,” clearly documents how Earl Dean designed the bottle, himself.

Legends, especially those 95 years in the making, don’t fade easily, though. The obstacle is that patent, applied for by Root Glass Co. on Aug. 18, 1915, and granted on Nov. 16, 1915, by the U.S. Patent Office. Thus, Coca-Cola still notes Samuelson’s official status as the bottle’s inventor.

“The problem is, Samuelson’s name is on the patent,” said Phil Mooney, historian for the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta. “And the question is, ‘Why did that happen?”

No one knows why Root Glass Co. founder Chapman J. Root put his plant superintendent’s name on the patent application. “It could be as simple as the boss gets the credit because he’s in charge,” Mooney speculated, “and we all know that happens today.”

But that’s only a guess. “There’s nobody who was there at the creation of the bottle who said, ‘Earl Dean designed the bottle, but Samuelson’s name is on the patent because he’s the boss.’” Samuelson died in 1934. Root died in 1945.

Norman Dean isn’t sure why Root submitted the patent with Samuelson’s name on it. “I don’t know,” Norman said by telephone from Seattle.

“That’s a mystery for the ages,” said Linda Dean, Norman’s wife.

“I wish I had [an answer]. I don’t have any idea,” said John Zabowski, who investigated the Coke bottle design mystery in 1971.

In a June 24, 1971, interview with Zabowski, even Earl Dean could not explain why Root — a man he revered — attached Samuelson’s name to the patent. “If Mr. Root was here, he could tell you,” Earl said then, “and I wouldn’t even guess.” Earl died in 1972.

As a result, Samuelson often receives credit for the design in popular culture. In fact, until Zabowski researched in ’71 the contour bottle’s birth for Root’s grandson, Chapman S. Root, Earl’s unique contribution to Americana was unknown. Occasionally, Earl gets sole credit for his design of a bottle shaped like a cocoa pod, distinguished by its 10 longitudinal ribs. Sometimes, the responsibility goes to a four-man team — Chapman J. Root, Samuelson, Earl Dean and Root Glass auditor T. Clyde Edwards, who each aided the process in varying degrees.

That’s why Norman Dean, who worked in financial advertising, decided to write a book.

“My husband kept reading articles that were giving credit to another man,” said Linda Dean. At one point, years ago, Norman “just snapped,” she added, “and said, ‘I’m going to set the record straight.’” He began writing and researching the bottle’s history in 1996. “The Man Behind the Bottle” was published this spring by Xlibris.

Norman often heard his dad tell the story, and Earl even sketched his original design for his son, just as he’d done on a warm summer day in Terre Haute, years earlier. In his 1971 interview with Zabowski, Earl gave the same account, in great detail, of the genesis of the Coca-Cola bottle.

In “The Man Behind the Bottle,” Norman retells his father’s story, carefully.

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