For the past century, Coca-Cola has been at the forefront of advertising. There’s a fascinating piece of Coca-Cola advertising history that, while not as memorable as its Christmas campaigns, certainly predates them, and is arguably just as vital to its legacy: Clocks.

In the 1890s, Coca-Cola started advertising on clocks, which was a pretty common way for businesses to advertise at the turn of the century.

Coca-Cola first turned to Edward Baird to make its clocks. The original Baird clocks were made of papier-mâché, which allowed the advertising letters to be moulded into it. According to Petretti’s Coca-Cola Collectibles Price Guide, the moulds for the clocks didn’t last long, which explains why there are so many different early styles of clock. But variety was what Coca Cola wanted, writes Petretti, and with every new clock order it filed, the company changed styles and slogans.

The original Coke clocks cost about $2.75 to make, which was a fairly expensive price to pay for one fixed ad. But the company realised that it was money well spent, says Ray DeLuca, a knowledgeable Georgia-based antiques dealer specialising in Coca Cola.

Clock ads had a shelf life that posters and other discarded items didn’t, DeLuca says. Businesses didn’t throw clocks away because were functional. A clock on the shelf of your grocery store or on the wall of your business — that was the kind of advertising opportunity brands dreamed of.

At the turn of the century, Coca-Cola started using clocks designed by the E.N. Welch Co. These were octagonal schoolhouse regulator clocks, and each was outfitted with a gorgeous paper Coca-Cola advertisement found inside a door, behind the pendulum. Notably, the value of one of these clocks without that paper ad is about $5,000 less than one with it. 

See a gallery of vintage Coca-Cola clocks:

At first, Coke clocks were given only to businesses. But Coca-Cola did experiment with giving them out for use at home. From about 1905 until 1920, the company produced ornate desk clocks which boasted slogans like, “Drink Coca-Cola in bottles,” which served as a reminder to people sitting at home that they were now able to enjoy their favourite soft drink whenever they wanted it.

Coca-Cola clocks were also given to schools, says DeLuca. “I guess some schools didn’t have the money to get them. Back then, Coke was giving clocks to everyone.”

DeLuca says people started becoming interested in the old clocks in the late 1980s. Some of the original clocks are worth thousands of dollars, especially the Bairds. One of the most valuable Baird Coca-Cola clocks sold for $25,000 about 25 years ago.

Assessing the value of Coca Cola clocks can be tricky. Unlike other antiques, the clocks aren’t typically dated, which means collectors have to rely on things like slogan verbiage and clock materials to determine its approximate age.

And, as with much of the industry, fake clocks are ubiquitous. “I ain’t gonna tell you about half the emails I sent to people saying: ‘You’re a rip-off artist!’” says DeLuca. Anyone fortunate enough to chance upon an original clock from the turn of the century should keep it safe. And for the majority of us who are interested in the clocks but don’t have the kind of good fortune to own them, a quick scroll through Coke’s digital archives might be satisfying in its own way.