Anders Lundin is on a journey across the United States, and his first stop was Streator.
The Swedish filmmaker is following the footsteps of Alexander Samuelson who is considered by many to be the inventor of the Coca-Cola bottle. He’s working on a documentary detailing Samuelson’s life, immigration to America as well as the history of the iconic soda bottle that’s become ingrained in pop culture.
Nestled deep in the basement of the Streatorland Historical Society was a small case of older Coca-Cola bottles surrounded by a seemingly endless amount of historical artifacts.
To many, including councilman and tourism director Ed Brozak, their true connection to Streator was not apparent until recently.
“We had (the bottles), but we didn’t have the connection. That somebody from Streator was connected to it,” Brozak said.
Brozak, as well as Streatorland Historical Society President David Reed, were interviewed for the documentary and took Lundin and his friend and cameraman Michael Wahlbäck on a tour of Streator’s history.
The investigation begins
Lundin made contact with the Streatorland Historical Society months ago.
He notified them he had information showing when Samuelson came to the United States, his first stop was also Streator.
“He comes in and tells us stuff we didn’t know so I’m writing them down,” Brozak said.
“Then he tells me things I don’t know and it’s like detective work,” Lundin added with an enthusiastic smile.
The pair was able to determine Samuelson and his family lived in homes that are currently located around Streator High School. Using that information they deduced that of the three glass factories in the 1800s, it was likely Samuelson worked at the American Glass and Bottle Company, which was formerly known as the Streator Glass and Bottle Company.
“We’re putting some facts together and assuming they worked there because they were a block from that area,” Brozak said.
It’s believed Samuelson lived in Streator from 1883 to 1888 before moving to Newark, Ohio.
“Our records are incomplete after ‘88, so there’s some gaps there. But we’ll figure it out yet,” Brozak said.
Why did Samuelson come to Streator?
Lundin said it was interesting Samuelson chose Streator because according to information from Brozak and Reed, the glass industry had begun in 1885, two years before Samuelson, who was a glass blower, had arrived.
Reed said it was possible he arrived because of the coal mines, which dramatically raised the population in Streator between 1868 to 1882. The location also made it prime real estate for a future glass factory due to the coal mines, railroads and silica sand plant in Ottawa.
“So you had the combination and all the ingredients,” Reed said. “It was a rapidly growing community.”
The city would later become known as the "Glass Container Capital of the World."
Reed also shared Streator landed the glass business when August Busch considered Streator to start Anheuser Busch. Unfortunately for Streator, St. Louis offered him free land but Busch still gave Matthew Jack, Busch’s friend, a contract to make the beer bottles in Streator.
After leaving Streator, Samuelson moved his family to Newark, Ohio and then he took a job in Terre Haute, Ind. at the Root Glass Company as a shop foreman.
What role did Samuelson have in the Coca-Cola bottle redesign?
It was around this time Coca-Cola had begun a contest to redesign its bottle.
The historical society also had one of the original Coca-Cola bottles in its collection, which appeared fairly nondescript compared to the later design.
“That was easy to duplicate and pretend it’s a knock-off Coca-Cola, but if you have something distinct then you know it’s Coca-Cola,” Reed said.
“They wanted something you could feel in the dark,” Lundin added. “Something where even if it’s smashed you could still see it was a Coca-Cola bottle.”
Lundin explained Samuelson and his team went to the library for research and saw the cocoa bean. They decided to incorporate the elongated shape and ribs into the design and the company submitted a patent with Samuelson’s name on it.
Lundin said there is some dispute as to how much of a role Samuelson played in the design. He hopes his research and documentary will paint a clearer picture of how the Coke bottle design came to be.
He will continue to follow in Samuelson’s footsteps by visiting his family home and grave in Newark, Ohio, as well as Terra Haute, Ind., Daytona Beach, Fla., where the Root family descendants live, and the Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Ga.
Streator from an outsider’s perspective
Lundin started his journey in Chicago, not Castle Island in New York as Samuelson did prior to the establishment of Ellis Island, and Lundin tried to put himself in Samuelson’s shoes when it comes to discovering a new country for the first time.
Lundin was disappointed at first by the large-scale city, but the closer he came to Streator the easier it became to relive Samuelson’s journey.
“Suddenly you come out to the countryside and you see these big fields and these farm houses, then it feels like this is the real place Alexander came to be,” Lundin said. “When we came into Streator I thought it was beautiful because it’s a small American community and it feels like everybody knows who everybody is here.”
Lundin said the same is not true of his hometown of Surte, where Samuelson also originated.
He first directed the documentary “Life in Surte,” which detailed the glass factories there. During research for that film he came across Samuelson’s story and admired his strength in leaving the only home he’s known to find a life in another country.
Lundin also saw the story as detailing the importance of accepting immigrants from other countries as well as detailing how Sweden went from one of the poorest countries during the early 1800s to the richest even while losing many innovators to countries like the United States.
He hopes to recreate that journey for viewers and recapture the “adventure” of leaving a country for parts unknown.
“My goal is to try and take the viewer back, like a time machine, and feel how it was at that time,” Lundin said.
Lundin said he expects to release both an English and Swedish version of the film, which he hopes to wrap up at the end of the summer.
Until then, the research will continue because there’s much left to discover for both Lundin and his new friends in Streator.
“It’s very unusual to learn about your own history from Sweden,” Brozak said. “But it’s worked out very well for both of us.”
For more information and updates on his trip, you can visit Lundin’s website at lightray.se.