Remember those jelly jars with the cartoon characters that doubled as juice glasses after you used up all the jam? Man, those were cool. I don’t even like jam but I piled GLOBS of that saccharine sludge onto my toast every morning and night just to complete the Bugs Bunny family reunion that was forming in my mom’s kitchen cabinet. That’s called dedication, folks. That’s called suffering for your art.
But unlike many of my childhood pleasures—like forcing my little brother to play “school” until he cried or organizing stickers by type with the fastidiousness of a serial killer—my love of glasses with pictures on them remains fully intact. Even today, with 31 years to my name and a tired old heart full of dust and sand, these babies still spark joy.
But I’m not the only one feeling nostalgic. Lately, my colleagues and I have noticed these kitschy-on-purpose throwbacks showing up in bars and restaurants across the country, from L.A.’s Ronan to Atlanta’s 8arm. So we called up the owners to talk about their collections, how they acquired them, and the fuzzy feelings they dredge up in times that are bleak.
“Decal glasses take me back to Saturday morning cartoons,” says Victoria James, beverage director at Undercote in NYC. “If a glass can bring you back to your childhood, well, that’s certainly a good feeling for a cocktail.” She and her team traveled upstate to build their collection, which now includes more than 20 types of glassware, from sculptural tea cups to ’80s-era Smurf glasses. “We found some at an old yard sale and sent a picture to the group like, ‘Are these cheesy?’ And everyone responded, ‘No! Those are great. You HAVE to get them.’”
Mason Hereford, owner of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans, credits his mom for discovering the motherlode (heh heh) at a junk shop in Greenwood, Virginia—including a Camp Snoopy cup from McDonald’s and a Return of the Jedi promotional glass dating back to 1983. “We love them because they match the fun, hodgepodge, easygoing nature of our restaurant,” he says. As someone who once collected so many McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that I eventually made $2 selling them for a penny each at the local playground, I can relate.
“My grandmother, my mom, and I have all been collecting vintage glassware for years,” says Emily Shaya, co-owner of Safta in Denver. The modern Israeli restaurant has industrial vibes, but Shaya says the midcentury rosebud-printed glassware she found for serving drinks lends a special kinda warmth. “They’re inspired by the cups my husband [co-owner Alon Shaya] grew up seeing in his grandmother’s home.”
Andrea Carr of re.Find Vintage has been more successful than I in the secondhand game, and now makes a living selling antique barware to restaurants like Yellow Door Taqueria in Boston. She says stocking your cabinets with decal glasses is easy; they’re both plentiful and affordable at thrift stores across the country, and shouldn’t cost more than about $5–$10 each (though complete sets and rarer collections will run higher). For first-timers seeking a more targeted selection, the internet reigns supreme. Typing “vintage decal glasses” into Etsy or eBay will bring up an array of options, and Carr also recommends online shops like Amy’s Vintage Decorium or itsnotjustcocktails.com.
Mary Ellen Amato, owner of Rita in Brooklyn, says that her vintage glasses are both the cheapest and most-loved purchase she’s ever made for the cafe. “After spending my entire life savings opening up a restaurant, I was broke,” she recalls. One weekend, she closed down and headed upstate to her parents’ place for a break. “I wandered into a very old-school thrift store, and there, I saw them—safari-themed with leopards. The older woman working behind the counter was so thrilled to get rid of the ‘ugly cups’ that she threw in a free James Taylor cassette tape as a thank you.”
And that, folks, is called the life-changing magic of decal glasses.