A brief history of the Coca-Cola serving tray
© 2014 Blaine Martin
The serving tray story begins with a gentleman named J.F. Meek of Coshocton, Ohio in 1887. Meek was a local newspaper publisher who also ran a busy trade card printing business. He quickly expanded into other areas of advertising such as printing messages on school bags, grocer's aprons, fans, and other items. With a growing demand for his items Meek then formed the Tuscarora Advertising Company in Coshocton. Meek is credited by many with establishing what become known as the advertising specialty business.
In 1888, H.D. Beach, another publisher in Coshocton and rival, established the Standard Advertising Company which offered much the same type of merchandise. Instead of competing against each other, the two companies soon merged into the Meek and Beach Company in 1900. Naturally due to the rivalry between the two men, the merger did not last long and the companies split again. The H.D. Beach Company and the Meek Company were then formed. In 1909 Meek changed the name of his company from the Meek Company to the American Art Works. A name that has become very familiar to collectors of Coca-Cola trays.
Other manufacturers of trays for Coca-Cola included Charles W. Shonk Company, the New York Metal Ceiling Company, Tindeco and Stelad Signs.
Lithography is a method where an artwork is created with a grease pencil on a piece of polished limestone. Water is then added to the limestone to cover the surface. Ink is then applied to the stone, with the water repelling the ink and the grease pencil drawing capturing the ink.
A piece of paper is then pressed against the stone transferring the image on the stone to the paper.
To print onto metal a whole new process needed to be developed. That process was to become known as offset lithography. In this process the artwork and polished limestone are prepared as noted before.
But now a rubber blanket is introduced into the process. This blanket is brought in contact to the stone thus transferring the image from the stone to the blanket. The blanket is then applied to the primed surface of the metal. (the raw metal was primed with a white lead oxide primer to prepare the surface). In this manner the image from the blanket is transferred to the tray with the flexibility of the rubber compensating for any irregularities in the metal surface.
This process is then repeated for each color printed. Some trays used as many as 8 or 10 colors. For a detailed discussion concerning lithographic dot patterns refer to my dot patterns can help determine age article on this website.
Serving trays have been a mainstay of the Coca-Cola collecting world since organizing collecting began. Many collections are built around serving tray while others might only have a few. Seldom does a Coca-Cola collection ignore them all together.
From the first tray known tray of 1897 until 1926 (with a couple of exceptions) , Coca-Cola trays were intended to be utilitarian in nature, and were given in quantities to soda fountains. They were used by the clerk at the soda fountain to deliver glasses of Coca-Cola to customers and to visually remind them which drink to order. During the 1920's trays cost the Coca-Cola Company around 12 to 14 cents each, and amounted to a small percentage of the overall advertising budget.
In 1925 trays began to show bottles, and the trays were offered for sale to the individual bottlers, who bought them directly from The Coca-Cola Company. The bottlers distributed them directly to customers in many ways — contests, door to door, as purchase incentives, or in quantity to civic organizations.
Thankfully due to the Coca-Cola tray's beauty, quality and longevity many have survived to the present day for us Coca-Cola enthusiasts to enjoy.
The H.D. Beach Company in Coshocton, Ohio around 1902.
Postcard showing the American Artworks facility around the turn of the century.
Inside of a c.1900 print shop using large lithographic stones.
Polished lithographic stone used for lithography.
Printers proof and example of 1903 serving tray
Clipping from the 1929 Bottlers Price List that shows the 14 cent price of metal trays.