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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003 02:20 pm

Georg captured a time when soda salesmen went door-to-door

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In the 1930s, Springfield photographer Herbert Georg was hired by Coca-Cola Bottling to document its local operations.
Photos courtesy of the Illinois State Historical Library

Herbert Georg, one of the finest photographers Springfield has ever known, began his career in his father's studio, which had been established in Springfield around the turn of the last century. In 1923, Georg launched his own studio and began building a sterling reputation based on the diversity of his subjects, the high and uncompromising standard of quality he demanded, and a prolific body of work.

Although primarily known as a portrait photographer -- how many Springfield homes exhibit his work on their walls and mantelpieces? -- Georg (1893-1964) was also one of the best commercial photographers of his time. Springfield businesses both large and small engaged him as their official photographer. His work documents the buildings, products, employees, and progress of those companies for which he worked over the years.

One company that employed him was the Springfield Coca-Cola Bottling Company, then located on the site of what we now know as The Horace Mann Insurance Company's parking lot (700 block of East Jefferson). On at least three days (Sept. 24, 1931, July 24, 1935 and April 28, 1936), Georg recorded plant operations, including classroom training, management "skull sessions," and the sparkling new fleet of International delivery trucks laden with bottles of the same sweet, effervescent cola drink that we enjoy today. ("It Will Please Your Guests . . . Delight Your Family/ Buy it by the Case . . . One Case only One Dollar").

Georg's Coca-Cola photos, to me, are intensely interesting, and several I find to be quite humorous, particularly the before-and-after group shots. They are of regular men (boys, really), who, after corporate indoctrination and some serious sartorial refinishing, emerge as the "Men of Coke": cheerful, smiling, shining like new pennies, ready and eager to get out there and pitch the refreshing tonic door-to-door. One classroom scene suggests a typical point-of-sale (read: front porch) role-playing scenario. The blackboard in the background bears these admonishments as "General Instructions": 1) Do not cross lawns. 2) Do not bang on doors. 3) Do not leave crowns or straws on porches. 4) Do not serve Coca-Cola to anyone at truck.

Georg offered to us a "slice of time" in Springfield history when, on July 24, 1935, he accompanied at least one white-suited member of the Coke sales team on his rounds in the area south of Washington Park from South Grand up to its intersection with West Grand (now MacArthur). On that sojourn, he chronicled the salesman practicing what he had been taught to do -- selling Coke. Along the way, he also created some great still lifes of Coca-Cola displays at various points-of-sale. They include the Mid-Continent Petroleum Company at 8th and Jefferson (also now the Horace Mann parking lot), an unknown grocery market's front window, and the L. C. Traylor Sinclair filling station at 1700 West Grand Ave. South (now the MacArthur Boulevard location of a Baskin-Robbins). One can almost feel the heat rising from the pavement in the latter shot, but the old zinc-lined Coke cooler promises ice-cold refreshment is at hand.

After a fire gutted the Herbert Georg studio in February 1980, the staff of the Illinois State Historical Library salvaged an estimated 9,000 usable negatives from file cabinets that landed atop the rubble pile when the building collapsed. Unfortunately, the fire destroyed about 450,000 negatives.

Anyone with an interest in Springfield's past will appreciate the Georg Studio collection, among the treasure troves of local history at the ISHL.

Cheryl Pence, Mary Michals and Jim Helm of the Illinois State Historical Library assist Bob Cavanagh in researching this column. Contact Cavanagh at bobrufus@hotmail.com