The Coca-Cola trolley sign. © 2015 Blaine Martin
Transportation at the turn-of-the-century
In 1900 most roads and streets in the United States were unpaved dirt or stone. Transportation was primarily by horse-drawn carriages for pleasure and horse drawn wagons for business and freight. In winter and spring months, roads would easily become axle deep in mud and all but impassible. As electric streetcars became popular in cities, the idea of linking the countryside and nearby towns together by an electric interurban (inter= between, urban= cities) system spread. In 1900 there were a little over 2,000 miles of interurban track.
Fifteen years later there was over 15,000 miles of track and millions of passengers. These interurban or streetcar passengers provided the perfect opportunity for targeted product advertising. This unique circumstance quickly became big business for the advertisement placement companies who handled the placing and removal of the cardboard signs.
By the late 1920's the rise in popularity of the automobile and greatly improved roads led to the decline of the trolley. By the end of World War II, they had all but disappeared from American towns and cities.
Coca-Cola and the trolley car advertisement
About 1905 Coca-Cola placed its first advertisement on a trolley car. It came in the form of the 11x21 inch lightweight rectangular cardboard sign. A standard sized format that was in common use at the time. These cardboard signs were placed between two parallel horizontal rails slightly above the eye level of the passenger and just above the windows of the trolley. Each trolley held approximately thirty cards.
The physical placement and removal of these cards were handled by a trio of young men. One would walk down the length of the car, stabbing each sign with a sharp poker and removing it. The second person would place the new sign, and the third person would pick up the old signs off the car's floor. This method of removal is validated by the amount of trolley signs seen today with a hold or two in the middle of the sign.
Coca-Cola trolley signs were in use until about 1927, when — as trolley car usage declined, they were replaced by other forms of advertising. During that nearly quarter-century Coca-Cola produced some of its most beautiful and most appreciated advertising images. Images that endure to this day as one of Coca-Cola's most prized collectibles. Due to their rarity, trolley car signs are found in some of the best Coca-Cola collections and are eagerly sought by top collectors. When available (especially in a high condition) they typically command from a couple to many thousands of dollars.
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