- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Ever hear of North Emporia?

It’s not on any official maps, but briefly in 1943, Coca-Cola Co. bottled its cool, refreshing drink in a plant near Southside Virginia’s most notorious speed trap.

Anyone who finds one of these “North Emporia” bottles can start an instant bidding war on EBay among antique Coca-Cola bottle collectors.

“They are the most interesting bottle in Virginia,” said Read Smartt, 63, a collector of historical bottles who lives in Chesapeake. “The plant was north of Emporia. They only did it for one year, and [those bottles] are very scarce.”

From the late 1890s until the 1960s, the town or city where the cola was bottled was embossed across the bottom, he said. The soft drink was bottled in more than 1,500 places across the country, and more are being found every year. Except for North Emporia, of course.

Vintage bottles with “NORFOLK VA” on them are a dime a dozen because the plant produced a lot of them. There also were bottlers in Portsmouth, Suffolk and Newport News.

Mr. Smartt knows antique Coke bottles, and he should because he buys, sells and trades enough of them — about 500 annually. He started collecting them and wooden crates because he grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn., the birthplace of the company’s worldwide bottling system.

Mr. Smartt even worked briefly on the assembly line of the box and lumber company that made the crates the summer after he graduated from high school. Every once in a while, he wonders whether one of the pieces in his collection is one he handled back in 1964.

“I could have made this one,” Mr. Smartt said, pointing to a weathered yellow box with cut-out handles that once contained 24 bottles of the bubbly beverage. “I was at the end of the machine that cut the holes out.”

There’s an oversized briefcase on his kitchen table, lined with Styrofoam shaped like cola bottles and cushioned with carpet padding. The sunlight coming through the windows dances off two rows of antique bottles, the best in his collection.

Each of the 14 bottles is worth hundreds of dollars.

The vintage vessels go from the instantly recognizable green, contoured “hobble skirt,” or “Mae West” bottle — as some collectors call them — to the lesser-known but more valuable amber, straight-sided ones.

Coca-Cola didn’t settle on the standard “Georgia green” color, as it is known, until the 1930s. The glass bottle manufacturers, hired by the company to make containers, produced them in an assortment of colors from clear to pink, yellow and aqua.

Lynchburg Glass produced gray bottles in 1919, but only for a year, so they are scarce, according to the “Coke Bottle Checklist,” one of the bibles of antique Coca-Cola bottle collecting.

At last count, Mr. Smartt had 5,000 bottles in his collection. That seems like a lot until he tells you about his friend — Bill Porter of Rockville, “Coke Bottle Checklist” author — who claims to own the largest and most complete collection. Mr. Porter says he owns 10,000, including some rare ones that are worth thousands of dollars each.

“He’s in worse shape than I am, but he’s never been married,” Mr. Smartt cracked. “He’s just got his whole house full of Coke bottles.”

Mr. Smartt, who’s been with his wife, Amy, for 38 years, wants to stay married, so he’s not looking to increase his collection. It already takes up a couple of rooms in his house as it is.

Before you start wondering whether he has too much time on his hands, consider this: He’s been paid as much as $3,500 for a bottle. That’s not a misprint. Someone paid him $3,500 for an old piece of glass. But it was a “Hutchinson” bottle, the toughest bottle to collect, according to Coca-Cola’s voluminous Web site. With a metal stopper and a seal that made a popping sound when opened, this bottle was the first type used to mass-produce the drink.

Historical bottle collecting runs the gamut from those who collect containers that date back to biblical times to those who seek bottles for their color or notoriety. Some people collect bottles that once held poison.

“There was one bottle that brought in excess of $100,000 at auction, and multiple ones have commanded $50,000 each,” said Dr. Ralph Van Brocklin, a past president of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors.

Coke bottle collecting is one facet of the popular hobby, said the dentist, who collects glass flasks such as the ones celluloid cowboys took swigs from in Westerns.

Mr. Smartt has made money, but he’s also been burned. A few weeks ago he purchased what he thought was a one-of-a-kind bottle for nearly $500 in an EBay auction. It was nothing of the kind, so the seller agreed to take back the bottle and refund Mr. Smartt’s money.

Online competition for rare bottles is fierce in this little-known world. The Internet has been a boon to bottle collecting, allowing buyer-sellers like Mr. Smartt to reach more collectors.

“Before EBay, people would just travel around the country to bottle shows, so you might be selling bottles to just a few people,” he said. “With the Internet, you’ve got the whole world looking.”

Mr. Smartt recently mailed eight bottles to a collector in Malaysia who found his “cokesgalore” listing on EBay. The Internet has increased the price of a bottle that was $10 before the advent of online bidding to $100.

Sometimes the online bidding wars can turn into what amounts to a Wild West shootout with keyboards ablaze. Sometimes Mr. Smartt wins, and sometimes he loses. But his love for the bottles, and what they represent to him, well, that’s the “real thing.”

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