News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 5, 2010

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

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

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.

‘What is Coke made of?’

On the morning of June 28, 1915, Earl picked up the phone in the Root Glass mold shop, where he was the foreman and bottle designer. Owner Chapman J. Root summoned Earl to his office. There, Earl found Root, Samuelson and Edwards, along with the company’s sales manager and secretary. Root explained that Coca-Cola had invited 30 glass companies to submit a “new and distinctive” design for its bottle.

Whoever creates the winning design would get a “leather medal,” Root joked.

During the meeting, Samuelson asked, in his thick Swedish accent, “What is Coca-Cola made of?” (That question, Norman Dean concluded, marked Samuelson’s only contribution to the process.) As owner of a major Coca-Cola bottle supplier, Root knew the primary ingredients were extracts of the coca leaf and kola nuts. But Root and the others had no idea what coca leaves or kola nuts looked like. So Root sent Edwards and Dean to the Emeline Fairbanks Library in a car driven by his chauffeur. Their mission was to find a picture of the Coca-Cola contents.

The choice of Earl Dean was obvious, the book explains, because he was Root’s bottle designer. Edwards, a former schoolteacher, was likely sent, too, because he knew his way around libraries.

Earl and the auditor found no depiction of coca leaves or kola nuts in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But on Page 628 they spotted a “cocoa” tree branch, bearing pods. The entry says cocoa seeds produce a beverage “fit for the gods.” Those pods caught their attention. Edwards asked Earl if he could design a bottle based on the cocoa pods, and Earl said he could.

Because the encyclopedia couldn’t be checked out at the library, Earl had to sketch a bottle incorporating the pod into its bulging middle, with 10 long ribs running down to the base. (In an odd twist of fate, the plant used as a basis for the bottle — cocoa — is not the same as coca, and is not an ingredient in Coca-Cola. Statements made by the men involved, reviewed by Norman Dean, indicate they never realized the historic error.)

Once back at the glass factory, Dean showed his drawing to Root. He then learned from his boss — it was Monday — that the project had a seemingly impossible deadline. A prototype of the bottle had to be produced before noon Wednesday, when a strict plant union rule would force a daylong, end-of-the-month cleaning of the glass holding tanks. The task was called a “fire out.”

Root asked Earl if he could beat the deadline. “Well, I’ll do the best I can,” he answered. Root responded, “That’s fine, Earl. That’s fine.”

In less than two days, Earl R. Dean turned his pencil drawings into a glass model of the planet’s most familiar product. At one point, Earl worked 22 hours straight. He crafted a mold out of a block of cast iron, shaping the two halves with a surface grinder and lathe, and a hammer and chisel. By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, he and the mold shop crew produced a dozen prototype bottles.

Earl beat the deadline. Later that summer, his design was overwhelmingly selected by the Coca-Cola judging committee.

Later, Dean narrowed the bulge in the bottle’s midsection and widened the base to make it more stable on a conveyer belt, the book explains.

The contour bottle royalties earned Root Glass 5 cents per gross of Coca-Cola, and Chapman J. Root became the wealthiest man in Indiana. He offered Earl a choice of a $500 bonus or a lifetime job. Earl, a loyal company guy who started working for Root Glass at age 14, chose the latter. But Root left the glass container industry in 1932, and Earl wound up working for the firm that moved into the plant — Owens-Illinois.

The two men admired each other.

Earl never sought, nor expected, fame or fortune for having designed the Coke bottle. “Earl was a very modest person,” said Zabowski. “It wasn’t he didn’t care about his family. It’s just that he didn’t think it was that important, because he’d designed hundreds of bottles.” Earl was, though, surprised to learn in 1971 that his former plant superintendent, Alexander Samuelson, was instead widely regarded as the bottle’s inventor.

‘The Samuelson bottle’?

Earl found out about that misconception when Robert Voges, vice president of Florida Coca-Cola Bottling, began searching for surviving employees of Root Glass during the 1915 era. Chapman S. Root, the founder’s grandson, wanted to produce commemorative replica bottles and hoped to gather memories of the original design process. A letter to Earl referred to it as “the Samuelson bottle.”

Confused by that reference, Earl wrote back, saying he and other Root Glass workers had never called it “the Samuelson bottle.” In his response, Earl recounted the story of its creation. That revelation surprised Chapman S. Root and Voges, and prompted them to send Zabowski — a former journalist and veteran Owens-Illinois marketing and advertising manager — to interview Earl, then 81, in Clarendon Hills, Ill.

Despite his age, Earl’s memory was vivid and detailed, Zabowski recalls.

“He was perfectly sensible,” said Zabowski, now 86 and living near Toledo, Ohio. In fact, Earl had just passed a test to get an Illinois driver’s license, he added. In their hourlong interview, Earl shared a story so intricate that Zabowski left with no doubt that he’d just spoken to the man who designed the classic Coca-Cola bottle.

“Absolutely,” Zabowski said by telephone last week. “No uncertainty. I’m convinced that he did the design because of his prior experience, his familiarity with the project and his expertise, and he worked directly with Chapman J. Root.”

That interview pulled Earl R. Dean from obscurity. A June 6, 1974, story in Rolling Stone — “Coca-Cola: It’s the Real Thing” — gave him full credit for the design. When Earl died on Jan. 8, 1972, many newspapers around the country declared that the designer of the Coke bottle had passed. But contradictions steadily linger, most linked to the patent. A 1949 interview between Coke officials and T. Clyde Edwards — the Root Glass auditor who accompanied Earl to the Fairbanks Library back on June 28, 1915 — credited Samuelson with the design and perpetuated that story, according to Norman Dean.

In “The Man Behind the Bottle,” Norman Dean provides evidence to discount Edwards’ 1949 recollection of the bottle’s birth.

Earl’s role is not disregarded by Coca-Cola today. “If he didn’t design all of it, he certainly designed the larger part of it,” said Mooney, who read and praised Norman Dean’s book. “But at the end of the day, he didn’t get his name on the patent.”

‘Definitive’ story told

The book impressed Zabowski. “Norman did an excellent job of capturing the facts,” he said.

Mooney, the Coca-Cola historian for the past 32 years, said the book “is a great contribution to the literature we have. It’s the most definitive study that’s been done on the bottle.”

And that bottle is more than a mere container. “In terms of how we communicate with the public, it’s the bottle,” Mooney said.

Only two original prototypes are known to exist. One is in the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta. “When people ask, ‘What’s the most valuable thing you have in the museum?’ I generally reference that bottle,” Mooney said, not in terms of price, but rather its historical worth.

The other prototype belongs to Norman Dean. Chapman J. Root allowed his dad to keep it. Norman also holds his dad’s original pencil sketch of his Coke bottle design — the front view. His rear-view drawing went to the U.S. Patent Office. All are presented in “The Man Behind the Bottle,” along with never-before-published photographs. Those pictures include a 1915 shot of Earl — fresh-faced at just 25 years old, dressed in a three-piece suit and hat, holding a cigar — standing beside the Root Glass “Johnny Bull Machine” equipped with a mold that is, unmistakably, a Coca-Cola bottle.

The book was nearly 40 years in the making for Norman, now 80. He hopes it erases any doubt about the identity of the bottle’s designer.

His dad, Norman recalled, “had a good sense of humor. He loved to play practical jokes.” But when it came to work, “he was a no-nonsense kind of guy,” he said, “and as honest as the day is long.”



Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.