NEW YORK — The rivalry between Pepsi and Coke may have sparked the 1980s cola wars, but other soft drink brands inspire equally fierce passion in their fans — fans such as Greg Powers of Providence, Rhode Island. He has one of the largest private collections of Dr Pepper memorabilia, including thousands of items from bottles, cans and signs to bubblegum, cowboy boots and even a Queen Anne-style vending machine. Powers is also a member of the Dr Pepper 10-2-4 Collectors’ Club, which has more than 10,000 followers on Facebook. “I have been collecting for over 40 years. I travel all over the world and take Diet DP with me,” he said. “I started collecting when I met a DP collector over 40 years ago and he gave me a few items. I then started going to antique stores and buying more. I was hooked.”
Powers’ extensive collection has moved several times with him. In relocating to Rhode Island last year, he filled more than 180 boxes with Dr Pepper items, and that’s not counting larger items that weren’t boxed, such as display cabinets. And until he sold it a few years ago, he drove a replica Dr Pepper NASCAR car.
Interestingly, Dr Pepper is older than Coca-Cola, by about six months. It was first served at The Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas in 1885 by pharmacist Charles Alderton, who created its formula. The soft drink is not a cola; the original recipe was a combination of 23 different fountain syrups, and it has a distinctive taste. Alderton was credited with naming his invention, but the origins of the moniker are unconfirmed. The Dr Pepper Museum in Waco has gathered a dozen disparate stories on how the name came to be. Regardless, in 1950, the product’s name officially dropped its punctuation.
John Mihovetz, a department head at Morphy Auctions, based in Denver, Pennsylvania, said that high-grade examples of tin and porcelain items, especially flange signs, are always in high demand. “Advertising from the 1920s up until World War II is really, really hot,” he said, adding that interest in Victorian-era items is typically softer than that for Art Deco-era or later pieces. “A lot of the younger crowd are really pushing the bottle graphic stuff, the really unique script stuff and less on the older pieces,” he said.
Still, subject matter, rarity and condition will always trump typical market trends, as evidenced by the performance of a circa-1905 tin Dr Pepper sign-tray, decorated with a lion and the slogan, “King of Beverages.” It holds the highest price in the LiveAuctioneers results database for Dr Pepper memorabilia. Boasting great condition, bright colors and only the smallest of nicks and chips and mild crazing, the piece attained $11,500 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2011 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The soda brand used this kingly slogan between 1910 and 1914.
Mihovetz said Dr Pepper items featuring the lion graphic are scarce. “There are not many examples in any condition whatsoever. I would think that’s what tipped this way over the mark,” he said, adding, “Anything that is going to have that lion graphic on it will get pushed really high.”
Besides “king of beverages,” other popular Dr Pepper advertising slogans include “Drink a bite to eat at 10, 2, and 4,” which debuted in the 1920s. It was meant to encourage consumers to have a drink of Dr Pepper at those hours for a quick rush of energy, based on research showing that the average person’s stamina started to fade at those times.
Mihovetz explained that advertising pieces from this era with bottle graphics are coveted. “The 10, 2, and 4 is really strong right now,” he said. Retaining a high gloss and bright colors is a large Dr Pepper bottle cap-form tin sign marked in red with the numbers 10, 2 and 4. The piece, measuring 39in, sold for $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Rockabilly Auction Company.
The numerical slogan is popular with many collectors and Powers, who uses it as part of his email address, said he receives cards and good wishes on October 24 from acquaintances who assume the date is his birthday.
As noted above, rarity is something that whets collectors’ whistles, no matter the collecting category. Several large pale green items were released to advertise Dr Pepper, among them a post-war, late-1940s 10¢ VMC model 81 vending machine. A professionally-restored example brought $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2019 at Dan Morphy Auctions. “I think when it comes to vending, the restoration definitely plays a significant role in it and if I remember correctly that one just had a concours restoration,” he said. “You have this unique color, and it’s not just like every other vending machine that you always see. Anything that is more unique and obscure and eye-appealing is definitely going to bring the money.”
Another notable piece dating to the same time period as the vending machine is a green Dr Pepper soda fountain ice cooler with embossed front sides and lid and the 10 2 4 clock symbol. It earned $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021.
Small advertising pieces are, of course, highly collectible and while most Dr Pepper die-cuts, thermometers and bottles will usually bring a few hundred to a few thousand, specialty items tend to do well, particularly those with neon or electric features. A lighted Cleveland Dr Pepper advertising clock in working condition, which measured 31 by 36in, made $4,900 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2018 at Bright Star Antiques Co.
By the 1950s, Dr Pepper marketed itself as “the friendly Pepper-Upper” and 1970s consumers were advised to “Be a Pepper, Drink Dr Pepper.” No matter the era, Dr Pepper finds favor with those who seek a boost from a sugary drink as well as those who collect branded items.