Sunday, June 10, 2012

Obscure nostalgia: 1970s plastic mugs from Whirley Industries

When my family was living in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, in the mid 1970s, we acquired -- I believe from a door-to-door fundraiser -- a couple of plastic mugs. The mugs, one yellow and one red, had "HANDS OFF!" printed on one side and "MY MUG!' printed on the other side. They are somewhat garish, to be sure, but became more endearing with the passage of time.

The yellow mug stayed with me after I graduated from college and moved around the country. But then, around 2006, it suffered a tragic end. Our dog, Moose, chewed it to pieces while we were out of the house. (Moose chewed a lot of things to pieces in those days, so I couldn't really complain about a lone plastic mug.) So I pulled myself together and moved on with my life, sure that I would never again come across such a distinct piece of Americana.

I was wrong.

Last month, Joan1 and I were at Megatronix, a sprawling York County store that sells tons of used stuff. The store itself is just OK. But this turned out to be more interesting: In front of the store, they have sheds filled with items that cost one penny. Most of these penny items are true junk -- used sampler CDs from artists no one has ever heard of, old computer-programming books, expired makeup, plastic covers for cellphones that aren't produced anymore, etc.

But, in one of the penny sheds, atop the highest shelf, were three or four dozen plastic mugs just like those we originally acquired in the 1970s. What are the odds?!? At first glance, most of the mugs had "AVA BEARS" printed across one side in blue lettering. But then I saw one scuffed "HANDS OFF!" mug. And then I spotted another one, which was in almost pristine condition, except for some specks of blue paint and, of course, dust.

We splurged and paid three cents for the three plastic mugs shown above.

Besides the "HANDS OFF!" mug, I got one with AVA BEARS printed on it. Turns out Ava is a tiny city (fewer than 3,000 residents as of 2010) in southcentral Missouri. And Bears is the nickname of the Ava High School sports teams. So perhaps these personalized mugs were sold for a school fundraiser three or four decades ago. (I guess there was no interest in personalizing the Montoursville mugs. Or perhaps I've just never come across one of those.)

The other mug I bought is white and features the Mister Donut logo in red. Y'all remember Mister Donut, don't you? They were commonplace across Pennsylvania before Dunkin Donuts came to rule the country. According to Wikipedia, Mister Donut's main market is now Japan, with more than 1,300 locations. It appears there might be just one remaining Mister Donut in the United States -- in Godfrey, Illinois.2

These groovy plastic mugs were produced once upon a time by Whirley Industries in Warren, Pennsylvania,3 according to the raised lettering on the bottom.

And Whirley is still around. It's now rebranded as Whirley DrinkWorks!, which designs custom products for the food and beverage industry. The company is family-owned and has been in operation since 1960. Bob Sokolski and Hal Conarro started in the car-wash business before moving on to plastics in the 1970s. The company's range of offerings is, of course, much broader now than it was 40 years. Check out some of its products here.

As a final note, while I'm a big fan of the "HANDS OFF!" mug, it appears that the most well-remembered Whirley product is the Moo-Cow Creamer. Who remembers those?

1. Some congratulations are in order! Joan's blog on York County history and culture celebrated its FIFTH anniversary this weekend. I know I will be hard-pressed to keep this blog going for five full years. She has recorded quite an amazing accomplishment.
2. However, there is a company called Donut Connection with many franchises in the eastern United States. According to Wikipedia, these franchises "serve the same menu and recipes as Mister Donut once did." Its logo, however, is not nearly as cool as the Mister Donut logo.
3. Joan and I went through Warren as part of our fifth anniversary trip to Erie in 2010. Here's proof that I was there:


  1. NO WAY!!!!!! I vividly remember that mug! I am so glad you found not one, but TWO to replace it! Now if you could only find my beloved Clowny...

  2. I have one with a frog smiling on it

  3. My mom has one and you grandson loves it. He is only 8 months old. The hands off my mug. Wish that there was a way to get a replace top

  4. I have the cow creamer! Purchased at a local restaurant, early 70s, also have a hands off yellow cup my son found recently while demolishing an old building, always interesting to see what can be found in long deserted buildings