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Growing up in Louisa – How About Pop?

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 No, I’m not talking about Dr. Seuss’s children’s book, ‘Hop on Pop,’ nor the sound of midsummer firecrackers, but rather the sweet soft drinks that became a big part of my life when I was growing up and even on into later years. Over the years those sugary beverages were never every day faire at my house, but they were an indulgence we enjoyed every now and again. I know they were very special to this kid, especially in my youngest days. Generally, sweets, whether we’re talking ice cream, cake, pies, puddings, or that cold bottle of pop, were saved as special treats and not a part of the ‘every day.’ They were bought and savored only during special occasions, or when a visiting relative brought some along.

When I was a little older, and out with some friends, we’d sometimes stop at Simpsons’ Gulf Station, or Curt Young’s grocery, Andy’s grocery, or some other place and buy a bottle of pop. In my case, money was scarce enough that I didn’t often have the wherewithal to buy a bottle, even if the price was only five cents. On the hot days of summer, I would sometimes go through the seat cushions in our living room to see if I could find a buffalo nickel, or two. Finding a larger denomination was always a hope, but one rarely experienced.     

Upon reading the history of several leading brands, I discovered that even before my time, Coca-Cola was bottling the drink and selling it for five cents. In fact, one historical source says it was sold for a nickel a bottle from 1886 until 1959. I won’t dispute that, but I’m thinking they may have cost more prior to the late fifties. Anyway, soft drinks became widely available across the nation and affordable to most anyone, except maybe to a little street urchin.

I remember that I thought there was a big difference in flavor between fountain drinks and bottled pop. Usually the fountain drink was the stronger flavor of the two, perhaps because the ‘soda jerk’ behind the counter lacked sufficient finesse, or was being generous with the syrup. In any case, the concoction made at the fountain was also sweeter. The jerk also added chocolate, vanilla, or even cherry upon request, to make it even tastier!

Over time these wonderful elixirs would become part of my life. They certainly helped me obtain my current girth that I am so keen to reduce. The first drinks were sold only at drug stores fountains in the generations before me, I was told. They were considered a medicine. That sweet syrup was advertised to give people new energy, cure certain ailments, and give a sense of euphoria. I remember being sent to Dr. Skagg’s Drug Store to pick up a gallon of the thick syrup for my great-grandmother’s breathing problems. I never got to share in that, but it looked like a thick, gooey, brown syrup much the same as other ‘medicines’ I was spoon fed, like cod liver oil, or castor oil, I would have resisted, anyway.

 History tells us that the original ‘Coke’ contained a small amount of cocaine, but that the practice ended early on. I never saw any of that kind, but I still became addicted to the sweet tonic. As I said, the advertising of that day said that the drink would make you feel good. There’s no doubt of that if it was still drug-laced, but then maybe instead it was the caffeine and sugar. Together this would have been a very energizing bomb. Research tells me that Coke has not had cocaine as an ingredient since it was removed in 1903. Those early batches must have given those early users a real ‘kick.’ I can’t judge them considering that it wasn’t an illegal ingredient at the time, and the original purpose was meant to be medicinal.   

As far as I can remember, Louisa had its own Coca Cola bottling company that was located near the stockyards and the lumber yards, on the northern end of Clay Street. I barely knew some of the people who worked there, but I clearly remember that a fellow that I looked up to, Jimmy Spears, worked there. I think he drove a ‘Coca Cola’ truck and made deliveries all around the county and maybe further out. I was just a youngster when he graduated from high school and took a job at the ‘Coke’ plant, but I think he was a high school sports hero. Regardless, I knew his face and name.

During the early days, Coke bottles were always made of a green-colored translucent glass, but Pepsi bottles were totally transparent. The logo for Pepsi changed, but Coke stayed with theirs as far as I remember except when they changed the recipe once. That was a big marketing mistake. They ended up having to go back to the original and call it ‘Classic Coke.’ They were slowly forgiven by the public. On-going wars between Pepsi and Coke kept prices low, but both kept looking for marketing tricks to try and win market share. The public benefitted by the competition.

I remember that the bottom of the Coke bottles had the name of the town or city that had been the original bottler. They would be the first to fill them, but because these glasses were ‘recycled,’ encouraged by a refundable deposit, they were subject to be turned in, cleaned and reused most anywhere. Thus, a bottle may have the name of a West Coast city, or maybe the name of a near-by town. It was common to get bottles marked as coming from Atlanta, or Huntington, but rarely the west coast, like Las Vegas, or Seattle. In any case, my friends and I compared our bottles to see which was further away. Most were from Louisa, but that makes sense.

Over the years, I have toured various bottling plants in several different cities. I have watched the used bottles being sent through a cleaning process before they were added to the bottling line. Then they’d go to another line that would refill the sparkling bottles and recap them. The largest sellers now are sold in aluminum cans, but some plants still produce bottled drinks. In addition to the aluminum cans, there are also plastic bottles of several sizes being used. Back in the day we’d never heard of a two or three liter anything. We had half-pints, pints, quarts, half-gallon, and gallon containers, but soft drinks came in 8 – 12 ounce bottles. With all these kinds of diverse sizes sold today, it must take a far different kind of automated line to process.

It was late in my teens when we no longer had to use a ‘pop opener.’ Twist tops were showing up on some of the drinks. A little later, they started making cans with ‘flip tops.’ The first ones you had to remove the tab. Many people either tossed the tab or drop it back into the drink. After all, they had to do something with the small piece of aluminum. Because the opening was small, it wasn’t likely the piece would come back through and into your mouth so it was safe but not sanitary. I learned about that when I saw someone spill something all over several wooden cases of soft drinks. The storekeeper wiped them, but didn’t clean them. Yuck!

 The tabs evolved into a kind that no longer broke off, but instead folded out of the way. That’s how they still do it now. There’s been no further improvements since that I’ve noted. All of this did away with the ‘forced’ recycling and a means of making side ‘pop’ money. Cans were not returnable (people crushed them anyway) so the kid’s resource for getting cash dried up with aluminum cans.

My friends and I were necessarily slow to say ‘Coke’ when we wanted a drink. Instead, we would usually say we wanted to get a bottle of ‘pop.’ Using that general term had an advantage because we weren’t necessary loyal to a certain brand, and reserved the right to choose what we’d buy when we got there. We’d pick out whatever the merchant had in the box that was already cold. I remember the early machines where we had to put our hands down in the ice-cold water to get our drink. That frigid feel would run up my spine and cool me even before I’d had my first drink.

Those vending machines changed a good bit over the years. Some of the earliest ones I remember were little more than tubs to ice up and submerge the drinks. Some that still resembled those ice chests had a series of narrow metal slides that suspended the drinks in cold water and allowed the customer remove one drink after inserting the coins. They hung by the neck (sounds like a sentence for stealing chickens) for those bottles that fit the ‘bottle-neck.’ You couldn’t pull them out without paying your nickel.

Newer machines came along that were not emersion-coolers, but essentially just big refrigerators. Some had a clear glass door you could open and pull out your drink. Other simply regurgitated the brand you selected into a bottom tray. These newer ones worked better for can drinks because of the drop. They were less likely to break, or chip. For years both glass and metal were sold, but now it is harder to find glass bottles. There are also plastic ones shaped to look like the glass ones, but they aren’t popular. They still use a few glass ones in sizes 8 to 16 oz. Plastic is now used for the pop that is sold in 2-liter and 3-liter bottles. I think glass is better because I can taste the plastic, especially if we had bought it a while back.

I am sure that I had tried many brands but I had a hierarchy of preferences. None was so locked in that I would pass up trying a new flavor, or brand. Today, I hear people arguing whether Pepsi or Coke is better, but I remember that we also had several other kinds of drinks from which to choose, like: Dad’s, or Hire’s Root beer, chocolate, ginger ale, grape (NuGrape), orange crush, Doctor Pepper, Cherry Soda, Royal Crown Cola (R.C.) I suspect we would drink most any of those on a hot summer’s day when we had the necessary quarter. There were several brands beside Coca-Cola, and Pepsi, but there was no doubt that these led the market. Nehi was another that just came to mind.

The R.C. Cola was deemed by the gang I hung with as a little less tasty as the two leaders in the pop category, but was known to be especially good when taken with a ‘Moon Pie.’ I remember that we’d sometimes buy a ten-cent bag of peanuts and feed them into a freshly opened Coke or Pepsi. It would foam a little, but then as we drank the bottle, we’d get a nut to chew between the ‘swags.’

 Collectors today absolutely love all types of vintage Coca Cola advertising. Whether it is a screen door push plate (remember those?), a serving tray, a vintage cooler, a thermometer, old bottles, clocks with advertising, or signs large or small, and wooden crates with the printed logos, all bring big money every day. Vintage bottles are a category in themselves. Some really old bottles that may be dug up from wells, outhouses, or mud banks have real value.  Early advertising pieces are always good sellers at auctions as well as on the web. Most of this stuff was taken for granted during our time and tossed as soon as a new one showed up. When talking about antiques that’s always the dilemma. Many times, when we see the prices obtained we regret not hanging onto or rescuing the items from the trash.

A few folks I knew used to save bottle caps. The deal was to have a large variety of brands rather than mere volumes. The big machines had a bottle-opener built in with a container underneath that would catch the cap. Sometimes one brand or the other would run a contest with a prize notification on the inside of a lid for some lucky person. The idea, of course, was to have people buy their brand in hopes of winning. This would give a temporary sales advantage and take a larger part of the market from the other. Capitalistic systems are all about competition.

Grocery stores sold six and twelve packs of drinks to families, usually putting four in a wooden crate to be returned. At first the wooden crates had separators for each bottle, but later six packs. Then they took out the dividers altogether. Then came along cardboard boxes with self-handles and with advertising, but later, when cans came in, a plastic binder held them in six packs. These old wooden boxes are sought after by collectors.     

Good times had arrived when we had some ice cream on hand and a bottle of ginger ale. Those floats sure were a treat! Root beer worked well if you had no ginger ale. For that matter colas did the same if that’s what you had. One of my sons used to say, “I’m in flavor of that.” While that ‘sound-alike’ is the wrong word, we nonetheless immediately understood his expressed sentiments. Thinking about that, maybe I’ve written enough of this and should stop to see if we have any ice cream.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

Comments  

0 #1 Bernard 2017-07-10 14:34
Good article Mike, lots of memories. I remember when we lived at Paintsville, the RC plant was on our route to & from school. Sometimes when they had a lot of empty bottles to separate, they would get one or two of us to straighten them out & put them in the proper case. For this we got to drink an RC and then take one home. WOW!!! I also remember the real small bottles of Grapette, Orangette & Lemonette that came around in the late 40's & early 50's. Didn't go over very big as I think it was only a 5 or 6 ounce drink. For the most part, I was a Pepsi person, but finally stopped drinking all soft drinks about 4 years ago. Again Thanks for the memories & keep them coming, dear friend.
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