A beer is served in a glass with a pretty woman on the front. As you drink, something catches your eye—inside your glass you can see the bare butt cheeks of the same glamour girl presented fully dressed on the outside. Maybe you’re a little startled; maybe it makes you smile.
“The earliest peek-a-boo glasses feature a cartoonish woman with a freakishly big head and eyes, like Betty Boop.”
It’s hard to feel scandalized today by these so-called “girlie glasses,” which had their heyday in the 1940s and ’50s. Compared with the explicit images now accessible with the click of a mouse, these tumblers with pin-up decals seem downright quaint. Long before the Internet and cable TV, though, they offered a tantalizing thrill.
Stan Timm and his wife, Mardi, collect and research novelty items sold by Johnson Smith Company—established in 1914—in its mail-order catalogs. In fact, they purportedly have the largest novelty collection in the world. Some of their collection is documented on their web site Timm Stuff.
The Timms are particularly amused and delighted by the products of H. Fishlove and Co., a Chicago company that supplied Johnson Smith with its most popular gags, including chattering teeth, fake vomit, and girlie glasses. The Timms are self-made Fishlove historians, who have interviewed members of the Fishlove family, and they plan to publish eBooks on both Johnson Smith and Fishlove this summer.
Some of these glasses were called “peek-a-boos” and featured a clothed pin-up image on the front, usually a decal, although some were hand-painted. On the back side of the decal, the idealized woman would be depicted in sexy lingerie or plain naked. Her state of undress would increase as you drank. Other “nudie glasses” were known as “mystics” because the white chemical used for the lady’s clothing would seem to disappear when touched by condensation; when a beverage was poured into a glass, the naked woman underneath would be revealed.
As Stan tells it, such glasses were produced and sold as early as the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the ’40s that they really took off. “During World War II, they literally exploded because men were going out to war. The home folks thought that they needed a morale boost, so they sent them girlie glasses,” he says. “They became huge during that time. You can tell because, in the Johnson Smith catalog from ’37, there was only a little tiny ad for girlie glasses, probably an eighth of the page. By ’41, when we got into the war, it was a full-page ad.”
At home, Rosie the Riveters donned dungarees and sensible shoes, as they stepped into traditional male roles, like building fighter planes in factories. But overseas, the soldiers escaped the horrors of war with the help of men’s magazines and pin-ups sent from home. These uber-feminine fantasy women with their wasp waists and perky breasts, wearing little more than stiletto heels and dainty lingerie, quite literally became objects, like girlie glasses, lighters, and novelty pens.
So-called victory glasses featured a big “V” and patriotic color schemes, as well as images of pin-ups or soldiers kissing their girls—scantily clad or flashing their panties. The Timms say these were usually sold on the homefront to encourage patriotism and raise funds.
When the boys did return home, U.S. fashion changed to adhere to the male pin-up fantasies, as many women went back to their housewife roles. The silhouette of women’s clothes became an hourglass, emphasizing large busts and small waists, accentuated by fuller skirts and stilettos. Girlie glasses were just a small part of the burgeoning pin-up culture, but they contributed to the endless barrage of images promoting a physical ideal most women can’t achieve.
That said, great pin-up artists like George Petty (whose glasses are pictured below), Alberto Vargas (an example of his work is at top), Gil Elvgern, and Earl Moran, who made their careers drawing idealized women for men’s magazines like “Playboy” and “Esquire,” created such lushly detailed images that their work can be appreciated on a purely artistic level, the way we now appreciate the nudes by Titian, Botticelli, or Manet. Given the ubiquity of outright pornographic images today, their then-racy artwork seems to embody a more innocent, blushingly modest time.
“It was that time period’s form of titillation,” says New York collector Tigre McMullan, author of the 2003 “Collectible Girlie Glasses” book and a web site of the same name. “It could be considered very objectifying, but today it feels more quaint and kind of fun. The ones I enjoy the most actually have the least amount shown in the back. They’re the ones that are just a cheek shot. It’s a little bit of a ‘Ooh, look, hey, that’s kind of cute!’”
McMullan, who works as a gaffer on television shows, says Whoopi Goldberg, an outspoken feminist, has purchased many of these glasses from him. “A Manhattan antiques dealer I knew that told me that Whoopi buys these glasses and gives them away to friends. At the time, I was working with her, shooting ‘Whoopi’s Littleburg.’ So I showed Whoopi the galleys of my yet-to-be published book. She was fascinated and said, ‘If you ever run across something you want to sell, let me know because these are all fantastic.’
“Later, when she was doing her sitcom ‘Whoopi,’ I walked on the set with a box of about 50 glasses. She said, ‘Yes, I’ll buy them right now.’”
While H. Fishlove and Co. (now owned by the Fun, Inc. company) printed the decals and supplied Johnson Smith with many of its girlie glasses, the tumblers themselves were manufactured by glassware companies, particularly Libby and Anchor Hocking. Other companies that produced peek-a-boo and mystic decals include Jaco Lac, Meyercord, and Duro Decal.
“The problem with them is they were very fragile,” Stan Timm says of these “waterslide” decals. “As a consequence, if you buy glasses, many times you’ll find that the decal has deteriorated or fallen off, probably from washing. Fishlove also sold just the decals, and you could put them on anything. You could put one on a glass or put it on a window, wherever you wanted.”
McMullan explains how they worked. “You’d get the sheet of decals from the company, soak one in water, and then you’d stick it on. As it dried, it’d stick to the glass. The problem with waterslide decals, though, is if you take one of those glasses and stick it in water and let it sit, the decal will peel right off.”
The earliest peek-a-boo glasses, from around the 1920s, feature a cartoonish woman (above) with a freakishly big head and huge catty eyes, like Betty Boop; she’s often naked, nipples showing, on the reverse. While the womens’ heads got smaller and more proportional to their bodies over time, the decal drawings remained decidedly cartoonish until the late ’40s, when Fishlove made a deal with George Petty, a tremendously popular illustrator for “Esquire” and “True” magazines, to have some of his pin-up calendar images printed as glass decals.
His girlie glasses didn’t have any surprise to them—the images on the backs were simply reverse images of the fronts. But when esteemed illustrator Alberto Vargas, who also worked for “Esquire” and, later, “Playboy,” designed peek-a-boos, his women were naked on the back, usually shown from behind.
“The Petty and Vargas glass sets are our favorites in our collection because the designs are just stunning,” Mardi says. “Even forgetting about the nudie part of it, just looking at the glass from the front, they’re beautiful designs. They’re so much classier than the earlier, cartoonish ones.”
According to McMullan, cartoonish decals were still made in the ’50s. Despite that decade’s buttoned-up reputation, by the late ’50s these glasses got a little more naughty, with flailing legs and skirts blowing up to reveal bare butts, no undies.
In the ’60s, another more subtle form of the peek-a-boo glass, known as the “keyhole,” was introduced by Fishlove. These glasses, such as the ones from the Showgirl set below, gave customers an added sense of voyeurism as the back of the decal covered most of the glass except for a keyhole shape, where they could peer at a disrobed lady, as if they were watching her change on the other side of a door or perform at an adult peepshow.
Often the fantasy women on vintage girlie glasses are depicted wearing some sort of traditional ethnic dress, looking like Swedish milkmaids, Spanish flamenco dancers (below left), or Hawaiian hula girls. McMullan speculates that it’s because World War II soldiers would get nostalgic about the pretty girls they saw while stationed around the globe, but the Timms think the war just made Americans more aware of other cultures.
It is rare to find an image of a black woman on these glasses, though. McMullan said he has a set of Pilsner glasses from the ’60s that feature decals with a standard naked woman’s body on them, with clothes that have been hand-painted on. What’s unusual is that even thought all six cuties in the set have the same body shape, one has a black body (below right).
In the ’70s, the pretty pictures all but disappeared in favor of photographic decals, often of a nude woman—or a naked man or a couple—wearing the white “mystic” clothing. These glasses, called Centerfolds by Fishlove, are much less modest and charming, as they feature photos of real, graphically exposed people. They also say a lot about changing cultural standards for decency and for what was considered titillating, as well as the turning social tides. Now white men and African American women and men were objectified equally, along with white women.
“They were extremely popular, at least with Fishlove,” Stan says. “In fact, the Fishlove family talks how every two weeks a truck would come in with 72,000 glasses. Now, if you figure that out over a year’s time, that’s nearly 2 million glasses in a year. For a company like Fishlove, which wasn’t all that big, that was huge. At the time, they sold the most 10.5-ounce glasses in the world.”
Stan Timm suspects you’re more likely to meet collectors of all things “girlie” than collectors of just girlie glasses. This field of war-era collectibles includes pens, lighters, lamps, and even knives with handles shaped like a woman’s legs, or so-called “bottoms-up” shot glasses, which feature a pin-up girl positioned upside down. Stan says he assumes there are also collectors who focus on the work of Petty, who also made calendars and advertisements like those for Jantzen swimsuits.
But why would a woman collect these things? Mardi insists it’s a little clichéd for anyone to assume she wouldn’t be interested in girlie glasses. ”The way the women are displayed, when it comes to the older ones at least, is fairly tasteful,” she says. “It’s not gaudy in any way. The ones from the ’70s and beyond, I’m not as crazy about those. To me, those are over the top. But the earlier ones—especially if you look at the Petty and Vargas—they’re just beautiful, so well done. The ones that were made earlier are more cartoonish. Our grandkids thought they were neat.”