Like many New Yorkers in this city that never sleeps (NYers are the greatest coffee consumers in the country, drinking over 6x what other Americans drink!), consciousness is a caffeine-induced phenomenon for me and I would be absolutely lost without my morning cup of coffee (or two). In fact, I’ve noticed over the years working as a tour guide (especially when traveling with groups in China) that your typical American tourist can handle all sorts of disruptions to their daily routine and temporarily can do without almost any comforts they readily find at home, but expecting them to forgo their morning ritual of having a cup of coffee is going one step too far!
Among the many projects I dream of doing (but will probably never get around to before kicking the bucket) is writing a history of NYC’s coffee culture. Certainly one prominent feature in such a dreamt-of book would be a whole chapter on the history of coffee-to-go and the iconic paper cup, the “Anthora,” would be front-and-center in that chapter; and so this blog entry is a little stab at what might be featured in that book chapter.
We owe the design of the Anthora to Mr. Leslie Buck. Buck was born Laszlo Büch in 1922 in the city of Khust, part of what was then Czechoslovakia (today it lies in Ukraine.) Büch was Jewish and so tragically once the Nazis took control of Khust, he ended up a camp inmate in both Buchenwald and Auschwitz and lost both of his parents as victims of the Holocaust. Laszlo and his brother Eugene survived and after the war they emigrated to the U.S. and anglicized their names once they arrived. In the 1950s, they started a paper cup manufacturing company called Premier Cups based in Mount Vernon, NY. At some point in the early 60s, Leslie left to join the Sherri Cup Company and it was there that he designed and introduced the Anthora into the market in 1963. Buck never made any royalties from the Anthora design, but he did make a tidy sum as the salesman for the popular cup; he died in 2010 of Parkinson’s disease after retiring from the Sherri Cup Company in 1992.
At the same time as the Buck brothers were making their way to America, Greek immigrants were also making New York City the top destination to emigrate to as they fled the devastation of both WWII and the subsequent civil war in Greece. During the post-War era, the Greek community operated a large number of diners throughout the greater NY metropolitan area (you can still spot such diners in areas of the city such as Astoria, Queens or Bay Ridge, Brooklyn – for example, Plaka in Bay Ridgewhich has signage that evokes a similar look to the Anthora); Buck recognized the large Greek-American presence in many NYC diners and street corner push-carts and designed the cup to appeal to their Greek heritage pride (pretty savvy of him.)
Mr. Buck supposedly spoke with a thick Eastern European accent and so the name “Anthora” is said to be his mispronunciation of amphora, a liquid container (most commonly it held wine) that dates back to the Neolithic period and is heavily associated with classical Greek and Hellenistic pottery – you can wander through the galleries of the Met and spot dozens upon dozens of amphorae (I downloaded one beautiful Etruscan example from early 5th century BCE – it has a beautiful classical youth fired onto it.) Buck was not a trained artist but rather a businessman, so the amphora he drew on his cup does look a little misshapen (for example, it only has one handle whereas most amphora have two); but for not being an artist, Buck designed an instantly recognizable and endearing look to his cup. The blue and white refers to the colors of the Greek flag and the key design along the top and bottom of the cup (also called a meander) is found frequently in Greek architecture and ceramics (note the restaurant signage for Plaka above.) A shield has a warm greeting written in Greek-like lettering (notice how the “E” looks like a sigma), “We are happy to serve you,” along with three cups of steaming coffee; this shield evokes for me the shield of Achilles and W.H. Auden’s famous poem about that shield -- but then I’m always making leaps of association that make some people roll their eyes, especially after I’ve had a few cups of coffee in me!
The cup was hugely successful from the moment it was introduced to the market and enjoyed continued success for the next three decades, selling over half-a-billion cups a year at the height of its production in the early 1990s. But the blue ink used in the production of the Anthora did make the cup more expensive to vendors and coffee-on-the-go started to change in the 90s. The Sherri Cup company sold the design to industry giant Solo Cups in 1994 and sales started to diminish. After Starbucks and other chain/local coffee shops became a more ubiquitous phenomenon in the city just prior to and around the turn of the millennium, sales of the Anthora really took a nose-dive and so by 2005, Solo decided to discontinue production of the Anthora. They did lease the design to others who made various memorabilia with the design (for example, a very popular ceramic version of the Anthora designed by Graham Hill sells in MoMA’s Design Store).
One New Yorker (a Brooklynite, actually), the artist Rodger Stevens, had the foresight to start collecting not only the Anthora but the many knock-offs using similar designs to evoke the Anthora’s distinctive design; in 2005, just as the cup was scheduled to go out of production, the New York Times featured Mr. Stevens’ collection of paper cups online and you can still see it today by clicking on the embedded link. The same article that features Stevens’ collection notes that fellow New York graphic designer/artist wunderkind Ryan McGuinness designed a limited edition of some very fetching paper coffee cups that seem to be loosely inspired by the Anthora (personally, I detect a larger influence of blue-and-white porcelain on his design, but they are certainly beautiful.)
Production of the cup was reintroduced into the market in 2015 and you can now easily purchase them online or find vendors who use them scattered throughout the city. The cup shows up in all sorts of movies and tv shows to lend an air of authenticity to the set designs depicting NYC (for example, in The Wolf of Wall Street or on Mad Men as seen to the side and below); there is even a tumblr account that is more-or-less chronicling all the Anthoras flashing across big and smaller screens on a weekly basis (for example, Luke Cage is the latest in tossing Anthoras all around!)
One unfortunate downside of the Anthora is that it uses a polyethylene coating (read: plastic) that makes recycling the cup very difficult and doesn’t lend itself to compostability (in doing background reading for this post, I was surprised to learn that sytrofoam is actually a more recyclable material that polyethylene-coated paper.) Given how much coffee we New Yorkers drink, especially on-the-go, an alternative and more environmentally way of carrying our coffee around is sorely needed. One local enterprise that is rising to that challenge is a start-up called Stojo, a collapsible cup that can fit snugly in book-bags, pocket-books, or even your coat pocket. No Anthora design meets Stojo (yet), but icons have a way of evolving and changing through time – maybe at the end of this century, people will be filming scenes with Stojos to get the look and feel of NYC in the 2010s just right!