This Hartsville-based international packaging manufacturer had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, when Major James Lide Coker and his son James Jr. became the first to successfully produce paper from pine wood pulp. Following the success of their Carolina Fiber Company, the Cokers made a modest investment in equipment and began making cones for the southern textile industry from the paper produced by their pulp mill. W. F. Smith, who had experience in cone manufacturing with a Massachusetts firm, was employed to help the family set up operations. The paper cones were used in mills to wind cotton yarn at a time when the textile industry was growing rapidly in the South. On May 10, 1899, the cone-making enterprise was formally organized as the Southern Novelty Company with Major Coker as president.
While Coker’s eldest son, James Jr., focused on the management of Carolina Fiber, a younger son, Charles, joined his father at Southern Novelty. Charles Coker began as the firm’s first treasurer and chief salesman and succeeded as company president upon his father’s death in 1918. The company would continue to be headed by a member of the Coker family until 1998. Under Charles Coker’s leadership, modern industrial practices were implemented. In a field driven by price and technological change, Coker introduced a research department to constantly improve production efficiency and quality, a professional sales staff, and the concept of long-range planning to the company.
Southern Novelty, while closely affiliated with its sister company Carolina Fiber, expanded into producing an array of packaging materials, including cones, bags, boxes, and tubes, to meet the needs of developing southern, and later national, industries. In the company’s early years its products and prosperity were closely tied to the textile industry in the Carolinas. During the 1920s efforts to diversify into providing packaging solutions for industries besides textiles were intensified. The company changed its name to Sonoco Products Company in 1923, and Carolina Fiber merged into it in 1941. By the time of Charles Coker’s sudden death in 1931, company sales reached $1.6 million in the depth of the Depression.
Charles Coker’s sons, James Lide Coker III (president, 1931– 1961) and Charles W. Coker (president, 1961–1970), and grandson “Charlie” Coker (president, 1970–1998) led Sonoco in the years that followed. These years saw Sonoco become a vertically integrated paper company, expand into foreign markets, and diversify into further packaging-product lines. It became the leader in composite cans for products such as frozen juice concentrate and in 1980 introduced the plastic grocery bags that have since become predominant in the supermarket industry. In the early twenty-first century the company was packaging products ranging from potato chips to trash. Sonoco is one of the world’s largest packaging companies, with annual sales that grew from $17,000 in 1900 to $2.6 billion a century later.
Coker, Charles W. The Story of Sonoco Products Company. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1976.
Simpson, George Lee, Jr. The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.